Five Questions With Backbar’s Sam Treadway

sam treadway

Thirst Boston, a cocktail conference (seriously!) that brings the city’s bartending experts together for a celebration of sipping locally, returns on April 28 with panels, classes and—of course—a few parties.

Sam Treadway of Union Square’s Backbar is one such expert; he’s leading a discussion called “The Golden Age of Bitters: An Amaro by any Other Name…” And while he says it’s his first time ever moderating a panel, the bar buff will no doubt have a lot to add, both as a bartender and reformed one-time Campari critic.

We caught up with Treadway to learn a bit about his history behind the bar and to try and figure out why bitters are having such a moment right now.

How did you end up at Backbar?

I’ve been bartending for thirteen-ish years now. My first job was at Cheers here in Boston, the Faneuil Hall version. It was a summer job… fast forward many years later, and five—almost six years ago, now—the co-owners of Journeyman reached out to me wondering if I wanted to help open a bar for them. So I helped open the bar.

You’re moderating a panel on bitters. What’s your history with them?

It’s interesting—twelve years ago, working at a bar in Seattle, Campari was literally a joke bottle to us. Someone at the bar would be like, “Ooh, what’s that red stuff? Can I have some of that?” And we’d be like, “Ha, yeah! Here! Have some!” and enjoy seeing their face as they’re like, “What is that? It’s so bitter.” It’s gone from that to: I can’t imagine having a cocktail menu without having either Campari or Cynar or any number of other different bitter elements. I think it’s delicious, and that’s what guests—at least at our style of cocktail bar—enjoy.

It seems like bitters are having kind of a moment, no?

It happened seemingly in San Francisco first, and then in Boston and New York and Chicago, where drinking bitter things was almost a weird rite of passage for bartenders. Fernet-Branca, for example—the first time I tried it, I was like, this is awful, this is really, really terrible. I actually told the other people as we were taking a shot, “No, guys! Don’t drink it! It’s gone bad!” Now I love Fernet, and I crave it when you need that digestif quality.

You must be stoked to have a chance to dish about this stuff—doesn’t the Backbar menu have a whole section dedicated to bitter drinks? I remember a great drink with mezcal and rosemary.

Yeah, so that was on our winter menu: “Don’t be bitter, drink bitter.” That drink, Jewel of Oaxaca, worked out really well—some fun herbal notes overall. It wasn’t extremely bitter, but it was a dry, slow-sipping mezcal drink. And mezcal is another ingredient that’s trending for inexplicable reasons besides, I mean, I think it’s delicious, and I think other people are finding that to be the case.

Why do you think it is that bitters are trending so hard right now?

It’s unclear, especially because it’s been popularity in Italy for such a long time, for hundreds of years. It’s hard to understand why, suddenly, America is getting a taste for it. It’s definitely not universal. Still, the vast majority of bars either don’t carry it or don’t know what to do with it if they do carry it. But overall, the trend is to try and stay away from sweet. There’s an overall palate-changing, health-conscious, sweet-equals-bad-for-you idea. Even though really, I’ll tell as many people as will listen that if you want to be health conscious when it comes to drinking, then don’t drink alcohol—it’s by far the most caloric ingredient in any cocktail. (Ed. note: If you’re looking for a lower-cal cocktail, Backbar makes a mean mocktail, too—just ask Eater Boston editor Rachel Leah Blumenthal, who’s sung the praises of alcohol-free offerings like It’s Thyme for Apples, made with apple cider, lemon, thyme syrup and house ginger beer.)

At any rate, it’s people wanting to avoid sweet, and people wanting to push the envelope, taste-wise. The world of bitter things allows you to taste all sorts of herbs and spices you wouldn’t normally consume, and that’s a big reason why people go to cocktail bars: They want to try something new.

You can catch the Treadway-moderated panel at 5:15 p.m. on Saturday, April 29. Tickets and more info are available here.