Brandon Duff is in a unique position as head bartender for Atera, the vaunted New York restaurant from chef Matthew Lightner. He has access to cutting-edge equipment and ingredients, and they’re able to team on culinary collaborations. Duff, a painter, previously worked at two other establishments in TriBeCa, Weather Up and caffeinated comet RBC NYC, which gained a following with coffee aficionados during its short life span. We recently corresponded by e-mail, and Duff shared several spirited insights.
Which came first, your interest in spirits, or your interest in cocktails?
My interest in cocktails came first. Of course, that interest naturally translated to an ever-expanding interest in spirits.
Did you always plan to work with cocktails and spirits for a living, or did you consider other careers?
No it was completely a combination of my love for the drinks and an opportunity that was offered to me by Danny Gil of Weather Up. I am a painter, and I was moving around a bit when I landed here in NY- first I was a barista at RBC in Tribeca for a bit and then Danny asked me if I wanted to train as a bartender with Richie Boccato, Kathryn, and himself. Of course I said yes, and have loved it ever since. Continuously I am still painting in my studio (aka bedroom) each day and I am also working on a new project that is heavily beer focused.
What do you remember about your first night behind a bar?
The best part, of any night really, was right when the first rush is over. When you finally make yourself a cocktail to sip on and you’ve settled into your station. Especially on that first night at a place. It was the first sense of ease on an anxious day.
How do you go about naming cocktails?
No particular method. Naming can get tedious, so I tend to go with what comes natural.
What does a cocktail have to be for you to serve it at Atera?
All of the drinks on the menu right now are originals derived from classics. At Atera we are approaching our drinks seasonally and looking for flavors that are not seen on your typical cocktail menu. Our focus is on the flavors of the drink when being developed and in the execution of the drink when it is being built just before it is served.
What does working at Atera allow you to do, in terms of equipment and ingredients, that wasn’t possible at a bar like Weather Up?
The potential is endless. With the knowledge Atera’s kitchen contains, mixed with the state of the art equipment, I have the ability to infuse, extract, whip, smoke, and puree some of the most interesting drinks into existence. This is NYC too, so ingredient wise, I can get just about anything you could think of.
What’s the latest cocktail that you developed for Atera, and what was your inspiration and approach?
The newest one is called Ruby. I had been working on a martini variation with a focus on minerality for a while. Those characteristics are typically found in a gin martini, but I wanted the drink to have a super earthy body. I was at an aquavit bar just recently where they had all of these really interesting infusions going on. When I got to their beet aquavit I knew it was exactly what I had been looking for. I thought it out in a notebook and I had talked to our gardener a bit. What I ended up making was a beautiful ruby red cocktail that consists of gin that is infused with beets, rue, white cardamom by Gastrovac and then I add a little maraschino for a floral quality. This drink has one of the most beautiful color schemes and is garnished with a bit of Rue.
What’s your top selling cocktail at Atera, and why do you think that’s the case?
The top selling cocktail at Atera is the Sass, which consists of rye, Cynar, sassafras. The drink is simple and familiar. It has that great root beer quality while being balanced by Rittenhouse rye. The herbaceous Cynar lends to the complexity and body. We shake it and then serve it neat, which isn’t typical for a drink this style, but the sassafras produces a great stout-like head on the drink and in its simple presentation you are experiencing the most delicious sipping whisky you’ve ever tasted.
Would you say that you’ve had any mentors over the years? If so, what did they teach you that was so valuable?
The biggest influence for me and my bartending is the city. The greatest bars in the world are here and they all have something to teach. I have learned a lot from this city, and grown a lot drinking at these beautiful places. When I see, here, taste, drink something that is good in these streets, I want to do it better and make it mine.
What do you look for when you’re hiring somebody to work behind the bar?
I look for someone who has a strong interest in cocktails and is interested in doing things well. If you are not in love with cocktails and tasting what you are serving, I don’t want you behind my bar. Drink beer, drink coffee, drink wine, that’s great, but if you want to work with me here you need to love what you serve. The amount you taste and pay attention to detail will manifest in what you serve.
What type of music do you prefer to listen to when you’re working behind the bar?
It is hard to say. In the Lounge at Atera you will hear the likes of Thom Yorke, Foxygen, Wild Nothing, Punch Brothers, Bob Dylan and Grimes. It really depends on the atmosphere in time. If the space I am making drinks in happens to be full of energy I want the music to be jumpin’, while if it is a more docile Sunday evening I’ll take some Lady Day.
Where and what do you like to drink when you’re not working?
Well interestingly enough I have three major food groups: coffee, beer, and cocktails. I think it is important taste everything if you work in this industry, my only reserve is that I try to do it well, I am constantly searching to find a well roasted Kenyan bean, beautiful use of Cascade hops, or cold and balanced combination of spirits that is new to me. For espresso and drip coffee my favorites are Parlor Coffee in Williamsburg, Everyman Espresso in SoHo, and I love the people at Gasoline Alley. On my days off I generally catch a few pints at Top Hops on Orchard or over at One Mile House on Delancey. If I am in Brooklyn I will hit up Diamond bar, Spuyten Duyval and I just had a few at the newly opened Torst, that place has a killer list. Some of my favorite cocktail bars right now are Pouring Ribbons, Silver Lining, Amor y Amargo. If I listed them all we would be here for a while. Really I go where there is energy, little fuss, and well crafted drinks. Pouring Ribbons has some great bartenders behind what they are doing and I am anxious to see them grow. Dutch Kills will probably always be up there in running for best bars ever, with Weather Up Brooklyn, the old M&H, and a few others. I tend to drink all different types of drinks when I am out, but give me a Chet baker, Talent Scout, or Right Hand, and put me in a cab, I am happy.
If you could only fill your glass with one more cocktail or spirit, what would be in the glass, and who would pour it?
Fittingly enough, I would have to go with a Manhattan. It was the drink that I first really loved to drink. I don’t care who makes it for me to enjoy as long as there are other people around that all have drinks in their hands and are talking and laughing. There has to be heavy candlelight, a little music turned up just enough, and that sweet mixture of smells from the fresh juice, ripe citrus peels, sweeteners and spirits the barman is slinging.