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Master of mixology

Photos by Dan Bishop

February 2014

If you want to judge the quality of a bartender, ask him to make a Manhattan, says mixologist Adam Seger. Among other stints, Seger is the consulting mixologist and Sommelier for Bayshore's iPic Theaters.

They may not have the star power of the top chefs but mixologists are beginning to make a name for themselves. Leading the charge is Adam Seger, a mixologist before most of us had ever even heard the word and certainly before it became cool.

Seger has elevated bartending to high culinary art. He has been called a "Spirits Guru" by Food & Wine, featured in Cigar Aficionado, Wine Spectator, The New York Times and on the Food Network and created cocktails for the 84th Academy Awards Governorís Ball. As part of his groundbreaking approach to mixology, he was one of the first to make his own sweet vermouth, bitters and maraschino cherries and grow all the mint, basil and other herbs used in his drinks.

Seger is best known for his creations at National 27 in Chicago but he is also founding owner of Hum Spirits Co. and the Sour Mash Bourbon Bread Co., which makes gourmet bread, biscuit and pancake mix from Bourbon mash. Locally Seger is the consulting mixologist and sommelier for Bayshoreís iPic Theaters, and he created all of the cocktails at Big Daddyís Brew & Que.

When does a bartender become a mixologist?

I usually say a cook is to a chef as a bartender is to a mixologist. It takes a lot of skill and knowledge to become a great cook. The same can be said of a bartender. A chef, on the other hand, is someone that can go into a pantry, grab a bunch of random ingredients and create something original. A mixologist is similar. You need to have the foundations of a disciplined bartender, but a mixologist adds creativity. Given a set of spirits, if a guest asks for something made with passion fruit and tequilla or fresh peaches, a mixiologist should be able to create an original drink.

What drink do you wish you had invented?

A Manhattan. That would be a pretty big feather to have. I always say it is my favorite wedding-bartender drink because if they have a relatively fresh bottle of vermouth and a decent whiskey you can talk any wedding bartender into making you a decent Manhattan. Itís one of the first classic cocktails I learned to make and also one that even in its simplicity has many tannin variations. Sometimes a chef is judged by how they make an omelet. To me a Manhattan is a bartenderís omelet. It says a lot about the bartender and itís a great drink.

What is your favorite ingredient?

If you did a logarithm of all my recipes I would say ginger would come up more than anything. Itís like pepper. Itís a flavor enhancer but I also like it on its own for the peppery heat it can bring to a drink. Passion fruit is my other favorite because it has great natural acidity, which is important if you want someone to have that second or third sip. It also has that top note perfume that is so distinctive and decadent. As for the alcohol, I think vodka is like the boneless, skinless, thawed chicken breast of the spirit world. If you put enough spice on it or blacken or marinate it, you can make it taste like anything, but on its own thereís not a lot there. I like working with mescal and other agave spirits. Theyíre like pork, you can throw as much fruit and spice at it as you want but the natural flavor still holds up.

What makes a good drink?

Caring is a huge part. Obviously you have to use good ingredients, but there has been a lot of research that shows that the way something tastes depends a lot on the state of mind of the taster. This is why you may have a favorite bartender that technically does not make the best drink but they put a lot of attention into serving you and that makes the drink taste fantastic. On the other hand, you can go to one of these big mixology bars that do everything perfect and by the book but the treatment is cold; consequently, the drink is not nearly as enjoyable. There is a subjective side of it that has to be taken into account. Yes, you have to make a great drink, but if you are a jerk the client wonít enjoy it much.

If you were going to bar-hop in any city in the world where would it be?

Three years ago I would have definitely said London but today I have to go with Singapore. Itís incredible how fast and far they have come. There are certain factors in play that make it what it is today. One is the economy. Obviously Singapore missed the memo about the global slowdown so there is a lot of disposable income. Suddenly there are 20 cocktail bars on an international level bringing in mixologists from the U.K. and the U.S. Secondly, because they are new to the game, they donít have an identity or predetermined notions about what can and canít be done. From a creative standpoint there are some crazy and interesting things happening because no one is afraid to try something different. It is one case where they are helped by their lack of tradition. In terms of cocktail bars, it is the most interesting and diverse place in the world right now.


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