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Shannon Tebay Has Her Own Brand of Minimalism

The Death & Co. head bartender draws on her background in pastry to build drinks that are equal parts precise and imaginative.

If Shannon Tebay’s cocktails could be described in just one word, it would be “precise.”

Having studied pastry at the French Culinary Institute (now the International Culinary Center), Tebay, head bartender at New York’s Death & Co., brings a trained meticulousness to her approach to drink-making. While honing her pastry skills at Jane’s Sweet Buns, a bakery she opened with partner Jane Danger, she also worked as a server at Death & Co., fostering a cross-pollination between her interests.

“More so than a culinary chef, [a pastry chef is] thinking about the chemistry and precision of the whole thing,” she explains. “I find cocktails scratch the same itch.” When she swapped one for the other, the most noticeable shift came by way of her sleep schedule: “I’m not waking up at 4 a.m., I’m going to bed at 4 a.m.,” she jokes.

While they are undeniably refined, the rigor of her cocktails belies a certain artistry. That, too, is a product of education and experience. Tebay studied painting and drawing in college and planned to attend graduate school in the same subject, but ultimately made the jump to culinary school. Cocktails, like pastry, became a natural bedfellow to her creative interests. “I’m still able to use my hands and do something aesthetically driven,” she says. Often, this artistry unfolds in the form of ultra-streamlined builds that work to highlight a central flavor or ingredient. “I know a lot of people who start with a very expansive way of thinking and then kind of trim down,” explains Tebay. “I start at the very center and move out—as minimally as possible—to keep the focus on the central idea.”

Take, for example, her Fault Line, a simple Negroni variation that swaps aquavit for the expected gin, and Cynar for Campari. “Everything about it is just meant to be evocative of deep earthy, savory, vegetal flavors,” explains Tebay. Key to this impression is a mere teaspoon of carrot eau de vie. “It really is what this drink is mostly about,” she says. “Everything else is circling around that at the center of the target.”

Her brand of cocktail minimalism stems from her early experiences at Death & Co. as a server starting in 2010. “I gleaned a lot of stylistic technique and certainly learned the foundational knowledge about cocktails from the staff who was there at the time,” explains Tebay, citing Joaquín Simó, Phil Ward and Jillian Vose as key influences. In fact, her first bartending job came from Simó, with whom she helped open Pouring Ribbons in 2012. Simó’s drinks, like the Kingston Negroni are recognizable for their less-is-more approach, something that’s reflected in Tebay’s own aesthetic restraint.

“I think simplicity is best,” she says. “If an ingredient doesn’t need to be there, don’t put it there.” It’s a philosophy that extends to the adornment of her drinks, or lack thereof. “I want the drinks to speak for themselves as opposed to having a more grandiose presentation element. It should look perfect in its simplicity.”

Here, get to know Shannon Tebay in four of her signature cocktails.

Fault Line
“I asked the question: ‘What would a carrot Negroni look like?’ and this is where we ended up,” explains Tebay of her earthy, vegetal spin on the Italian classic. The base of Linie aquavit “seasons everything with caraway” and is complemented by artichoke-flavored Cynar as well as a small measure of Reisetbauer carrot eau de vie. The latter operates almost like a tincture, a small but potent component that doubles as the centerpiece of the drink. “Even though everything else in there has such big flavor, because they all pair so well, it pulls out the carrot in a huge way,” she says.

“Coconut is one of my absolute favorite things to put in cocktails in any form,” says Tebay, who, having noticed that none of the coconut-flavored cocktails at Death & Co. were built around gin, set out to make the Catamaran. Building outward from Coco López, she homed in on Bimini gin, an American expression flavored with a pronounced grapefruit note, which she pairs with Aperol and Don’s Mix, all served over crushed ice. The concept of the drink quickly came into focus: “It’s basically a grapefruit gin colada,” she says.

Emerald City
The driving idea behind the Emerald City was to create an elevated Appletini. Rather than the expected vodka base, Tebay opts for Reisetbauer blue gin, “an assertive gin that’s still a good platform for other flavors to shine.” And for the all-important apple element, Tebay looks to Cyril Zangs apple cider eau de vie, a coveted expression made from over 30 varieties of apple. But the ingredient that ties the drink together is a half-ounce of Absentroux, a fortified wine aromatized with a botanical blend typically found in absinthe. “The Absentroux is really the seasoning here,” she says. “It ties everything together.”

Kaleidoscope Eyes
“One of my favorite things to drink is Champagne,” says Tebay, who reinterprets one of the bar world’s most salaciously named Champagne cocktails—the Porn Star Martini—with her own brand of sophistication. “If you distill that cocktail down, it’s essentially a passion fruit Champagne cocktail,” she explains. Drawing on another signature—pairing fruit and vegetal flavors—she adds dill-infused aquavit to the passion fruit liqueur, and swaps the expected vanilla vodka for El Tesoro blanco tequila, which “has a little bit of a vegetal element and a little bit of a vanilla component that rounds out the cocktail,” she says. Of course, the finishing touch comes via a topper of Champagne.

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