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Bars of Summer, The Fine Art of Mixology No Comments »

Superstar mixologist Peter Vestino’s summer cocktail menu at Sepia, courtesy of Grapevine PR:

strawberry old fashioned 11
strawberry and peppercorn infused ridgemont reserve 1792 bourbon, house-made rhubarb star anise bitters, muddled cherries

basil fizz 10
grand marnier, apricot liqueur, muddled basil, fresh lime juice, topped with soda water

pimm’s cup 10
pimm’s #1, lemon syrup, cucumber-lime ice cubes, soda water

miss g.g.’s east egg cocktail 10
northshore #6 gin, honey-thyme syrup, chamomile tea, fresh lemon juice, soda splash

french 75 12
hendrick’s gin, fresh lemon sour, orange bitters, topped with bugey cerdon demi-sec sparkling rose

blueberry lemonade 10
veev açaí spirit, muddled blueberries, fresh lemonade, soda splash

the drunk monk 12
old raj gin, yellow chartreuse, lemon juice, orange peel

sepia mule 10
ginger infused vodka, fresh lime juice, ginger beer

right’s ricky 10
right gin, mathilde peach liqueur, fresh lime juice, sugar cane syrup, soda water

honeycomb margarita 12
house-made honeycomb tequila liqueur, partida blanco tequila, fresh lime juice

tangerine nectar 11
tangerine tea infused plymouth gin, organic agave nectar, fresh lemon juice, egg white

Booze King: Sepia’s Peter Vestinos reinvents cocktails

The Fine Art of Mixology No Comments »

By Michael Nagrant

Peter Vestinos is Iron Chef Liquor. In October, Vestinos, head barkeep at Sepia (123 North Jefferson), beat out a host of local luminaries, including Adam Seger of Nacional 27, in an Iron Bar Chef competition.

Curious about the guy who bested some of Chicago’s top mixologists, I stopped in at Sepia last Monday night. The restaurant was behind on its second turn and folks stood three-deep behind the bar. People threw money, waitresses angled for orders and gray-hairs in Brooks Brother’s button-downs demanded infinite configurations of vodka. I was horrified. And not because I was getting boxed out by a gaggle of “Sex in the City” wannabe’s sipping sherry, but by the volume of vodka requests.

Vestinos offered up a terrific cocktail program based on house-made sour mix, grenadine, infused liquors and bitters, but all they wanted was to pay $14 bucks for a clear, colorless, odorless, tasteless liquid. Using this logic, you’d expect them to ignore the restaurant menu and demand chicken nuggets from Sepia’s chef Kendal Duque.

While my inner tastemaker wanted to kick ass, Vestinos forded the maelstrom, rifling through wineglasses, pumping his gleaming tin shaker, all the while deploying a severe poker face. And, unlike at the Violet Hour where it takes a day to make one drink, Vestinos kicked out the occasional craft cocktail in minutes. After witnessing this, I’d also dub him Iron Chef Stoic.

He’s not immune to what’s going on, saying, “You just gotta pick your battles.” He adds, “I’ve had people look at my cocktail list, hand it back and say, ‘I want to see your martini list. These aren’t cocktails.’ It’s not their fault. People have forgotten how to drink, just like they forgot how to eat or to drink wine.”

Part of the reason Vestinos might be so good at maintaining a visual cool is that he’s a sketch-comedy actor and writer. He founded the local troupe 37Foxtrot, and wrote and performed a one-man show, “Cooking Light with Ms. Berndadette,” based on fake Discovery Center classes gone awry, last year.

Bartending was a role he never would have predicted. As the only member of his family to go to college, and the son of a career bartender, he swore he’d never keep bar. After years of producing corporate videos, he enrolled in bartending school and landed a job at Cyrano’s Bistro. He says, “I made more in two days than in two weeks with the other job.”

He moved on to the Tasting Room, and while on a trip to New York, he ran into a whiskey smash at Audrey Sander’s Pegu Club. Vestinos says, “There was this Gourmet article on Audrey talking about not having vodka on the back shelf and no soda guns at the bar. I was like, that’s crazy. The whiskey smash I ordered was like discovering wine. There was this bouquet, and the whiskey was bright and light. I came back the next night. ”

Back in Chicago he pored through classic tomes like the Mr. Boston guides and works by Dale DeGroff. As an innovator, he started building his drinks in the glass side of his Boston shaker, as opposed to the tin side where most bartenders work. He says, “I want customers to see what’s going on.”

When he organized the bar at Sepia, Vestinos featured gins on the center shelf and flanked them with whiskeys, cordials and rums, and de-emphasized vodka by putting it on the bottom shelf.

He keeps a bouquet of fresh aromatics like mint in ice water on the back bar and juices his limes with a citrus squeezer bar side. He says, “People order a Cosmo and they’ve never seen anyone make it with a fresh lime. The smell that floats across the bar is amazing.”

Vestinos has also become a cultural scientist. He says when people order vodka cocktails, they are very specific about the garnish because it’s the only thing they can control. He says, “You have people asking for one regular olive and one blue cheese olive, or one olive and a twist.” Sensing a customer’s desire for creativity, he might suggest they try gin, as “it’s the original flavored vodka.”

If those folks bite, they’ll find a fizzy French 75, Hendricks Gin hit with a demi-sec rosé float where the aroma off the glass drops like a grapefruit and lemon bomb. Vestino’s old-fashioned made with fig- and almond-infused Woodford Reserve bourbon and homemade cranberry bitters reinvigorates the syrupy drink we’ve come to associate with brandy-soaked Wisconsinites, as a balanced clean sipper. His dark n’ stormy is like a gingerbread cookie soaked in rum and features a floating storm cloud of ruby port. Even his fruitier fare, such as the Pear Nectar (gin with agave nectar, lemon and egg white), is balanced with the slight bitterness of a pear-green-tea–infused Plymouth Gin.

While Vestinos is focused on his craft, you might want to get to Sepia soon just in case Hollywood comes calling. As Vestino’s says, “The other day, my girlfriend said, this mixology thing seems to be working out. I told her, well, the acting thing is going pretty well, too.”

Sepia, 123 North Jefferson, (312)441-1920.

King of Cocktails: Adam Seger is Chicago’s master mixologist

The Fine Art of Mixology No Comments »

By Michael Nagrant

Adam Seger is the Charlie Trotter of cocktails. Actually, Trotter doesn’t serve spirits in his Lincoln Park restaurant, so it might be more appropriate to call Seger the Grant Achatz of spirits. The important thing is that Seger, also the general manager and sommelier at the Nuevo Latino restaurant Nacional 27, is blurring the distinction between the bar and the kitchen. He’s leading a wave of mixology that focuses on creating balanced cocktails from farm fresh locally sourced produce, with homemade liquors, aromatic infusions and spiced drink rims. As Seger puts it, “I think about food and how I can translate that to a liquid form.”

When I meet Seger on a Wednesday morning at Chicago’s Green City Market, he’s wearing a gray blazer, bespoke black dress slacks with white chalk stripes, and a multihued dress shirt. The market is Seger’s muse, the inspiration for his weekly offering of market-based cocktails at Nacional 27. Seger beelines for Mick Klug’s produce stand, lowers his closely cropped pate, which is framed by a pair of dark plastic eyeglass rims, and scrutinizes pints of fruit. He pops a Michigan black cherry in his mouth, and gestures toward blood-red stalks of rhubarb, their pale pink flesh reflecting in the sunlight, and orders up a bundle.

It’s like this all morning. Seger inhales the perfume of lavender bunches, pinches flowering thyme stalks and chomps on anise-tinged basil. At the Growing Power stand, Seger inquires about a peppery landcress. They’re out of stock this week, but the stand’s proprietor, an African-American woman with geometric tattoos on her forearms, points him towards a straw basket overflowing with a leafy mix. She suggests a red Japanese mustard green. Seger’s never worked with it, but he loves the incredible Chinese-hot-mustard-like zing at the back of the palate. He knows he needs it.

A few feet away, there’s a solitary green tomato surrounded by a bounty of hundreds of bright red, yellow and orange varieties. Seger immediately grabs it, explaining that green tomatoes have extra acidity he can use as a counterpoint to sweetness in his drinks. When Seger checks out, the tattooed woman asks, “Where did you get that green tomato? I didn’t know we had them.” Providence rears its head.

 The road to culinary-influenced cocktails starts with the 5-year-old Seger crouched over a pan of macaroni and cheese. Demonstrating an early penchant for experimentation, Seger figured out the best way to serve the blue box concoction was to “let the cheese sauce boil and reduce, and add some fresh cracked pepper at the end.”

Pretty soon, Seger, who hails from Baton Rouge and is the son of an Episcopalian minister, was entertaining and cooking for visiting priests. “Episcopalians entertain a lot and drink a lot, and definitely in south Louisiana… that’s where I kinda learned I had this thing for hospitality.”

A penchant for serving others led to hotel-administration school at Cornell, where Seger secured a coveted internship at a restaurant in Strasbourg. While in France, Seger carried a notebook to write down French words he didn’t recognize for later translation. Every day on his way to his internship he walked past Chez Julien, a Michelin-starred restaurant located in the shadows of the Gothic Cathedral Notre Dame and the Baroque Palais de Rohan.

Seger saved his money and, on a day off, put on a suit, grabbed his notebook and headed for lunch at Julien. Unbeknownst to Seger, Chez Julien was in the middle of a Michelin inspection. Dining alone and scribbling in his notebook, Seger looked like a culinary inspector. He says, “I got the best service I’ve ever had in my life and then I asked to meet the chef.” Fearing complaints, the restaurant workers made excuses, but finally ushered him into the kitchen to meet Chef Serge Knapp.

 Seger had just met Julia Child and he thought he’d name drop, but Knapp sternly replied, Je sais seulement les chefs francais—“I only know French chefs.” The conversation halted. Fumbling for common ground, Seger brought up his Louisiana childhood. Knapp had just gotten back from New Orleans and had loved it. They hit it off, and Knapp invited Seger to work in the kitchen. For the balance of the summer, Seger worked his other restaurant job from 6am to 3pm, and then moonlighted in the evenings at Julien. Knapp’s kitchen was a true French gastronomic temple, where the chefs purchased produce daily, butchered their own meats, grew their own herbs and constantly tasted everything.

Armed with a chef’s sensibility, and after graduating from Cornell, Seger took a job as the restaurant director at the Oak Room in Louisville’s Seelbach Hotel. The Oak Room was a genteel prohibition haunt of Al Capone complete with revolving spirits cabinets made to look like bookcases. F. Scott Fitzgerald used the hotel as a background for Tom and Daisy Buchanan’s wedding in “The Great Gatsby.”

In Louisville, as in Strasbourg, it was the days off that really mattered. Seger, a bourbon lover who favors 18-year-old Elijah Craig, frequented Hassenour’s, where Max Allen Jr., a “living breathing bourbon encyclopedia,” and third-generation bartender held court. Hassenour’s ended up closing due to tax problems, and Seger tracked Allen down and hired him for the Oak Room. Allen taught Seger the foundations of classic mixology, the importance of sense, how you can feel when a drink is properly chilled—when the shaker frosts, the spirit is properly chilled and undiluted. Many modern bartenders use rubber-insulated shakers, but Seger eschews them because he needs to feel the frost on the shaker.

While in Kentucky, Seger also started a bread company. On election day in Kentucky, it’s illegal to sell alcohol until the polls close. That doesn’t mean you can’t give it away. The Maker’s Mark distillery in Loretto, Kentucky hosted a free bourbon event that Seger and Seelbach chef Jim Gerhardt attended. At the event they learned that when T.W. Samuels bought the Maker’s Mark distillery, he decided to come up with a smoother whiskey than what was available on the market. Samuels didn’t have time to distill and age different batches to find the new recipe (the aging process takes years), so he decided to bake loaves of bread containing the exact proportion of the grain contents of different proposed whiskey recipes, and the recipe judged to be the best-tasting would be used at the distillery.

After a day of free drinks, Seger and Gerhardt, inspired by the story, developed a signature bread for the hotel based on the spent sour mash from the bourbon-distillation process. Seger says, “We had a lot of cocktails, and the creativity was flowing.”

The patrons at the Seelbach liked it so much that they started asking to buy it. In response, Seger and Gerhardt started the Sour Mash Bourbon Bread Company to distribute mixes based on their recipe. Seger still co-owns the company, and the mixes, widely available in Kentucky, are now moving into the Chicago market.

Seger left Kentucky and moved to TRU restaurant in Chicago to work as a general manager alongside chefs Rick Tramonto and Gale Gand.

Seger’s experience as an entrepreneur, mixologist, general manager and sommelier placed him in an elite class, so elite that Thomas Keller of the French Laundry, regarded as one of America’s best chefs, hired him as the pre-opening GM of Keller’s New York restaurant Per Se. While training at the French Laundry, Seger adopted Keller’s ingredient obsession.

Providence struck again and a fire delayed the opening of Per Se. As a result of the delay, Seger decided to come back to Chicago and take a job at Nacional 27. He says, “At Per Se, they already had a sommelier, and it was a wine-focused culture.”

Seger started to manage the front of the house, the wine list and oversee the bar menu at Nacional 27. Seger took a trip to London—ground zero for mixologists. He says, “What happens in London usually hits New York after a year and a half, and then Chicago a year to year and a half later. I wanted to see what was happening and bring it back to Chicago, to be ahead of the curve.”

In London, at spots like Lab bar and Salvatore’s, Seger witnessed bar produce deliveries that looked like kitchen deliveries. The London Hilton had two full-time employees devoted to producing juices and fruit prep for the bar.

Inspired by the purist approach, Seger started experimenting, bringing these experiences to his bar work at Nacional, integrating weekly produce deliveries of blood oranges and passion fruit into his drinks. As bartender Raoul Rivano puts it, “The business started growing again when he started managing here. He came with all these ideas, and drinks, and people want to try different things—they get bored with the same old.”

Seger started getting more hardcore, employing a dedication that set him apart from other mixologists.

Bridget Albert, master mixologist for Southern Wine and Spirits of Illinois, says, “He’s very forward-thinking. He’s taking the concept where the chef meets the bartender to a whole new level.” She added, “He’s the only person that I know in the beverage industry as a whole who’s taken the time to make his own bitters. In order to do that, you almost need to be a chemist. I think his imagination, passion and his drive is fantastic, something for all of us to look up to and follow.”

Indeed, Seger started making his own signature bitters. Bitters are aromatic compounds that provide a smooth drink finish on the back of the palate. Seger, in search of a more aromatic bitter that was darker than commercially available Peychauds, went to Merz Apothecary in Lincoln Square and spent a half day pouring through botanical books.

Francesco Lafranconi, one of the top mixologists in the world and a mentor of Seger’s says, “He’s a unique character. He really puts his heart and soul into it. He loves research before applying certain ingredients. He’s open to trying new things. He doesn’t have that attitude that he knows everything. He knows that there’s so much more to learn.”

Seger spent $180 and bought twenty-seven different aromatics including wormwood, the active ingredient in Absinthe, which is said to have hallucinogenic powers. Seger says, “I got a little nervous, and a friend did some FDA research for me. The general consensus is Absinthe is 130 proof and made of cheap booze which will kill you before wormwood will do anything.”

Seger steeped the aromatics in madeira, tequila and rum in separate Mason Jars. Seger says, “It was like this black gunk brewing away.” He separated the infusions with coffee filters, and micro-blended different concoctions until he got the right mix.

Five hours after our Green City Market trip, I’m back at Nacional 27, where Seger is conducting a tasting of Agua Luca Cachaca, a 12x filtered cane-sugar-based clear Brazilian rum found commonly in the Brazilian Caipirinha.

Seger muddles Cachaca with spicy mustard greens, heirloom tomatoes including the acidic green one from this morning’s market visit, limes and garnishes the drink with flowering thyme. He rims the glass with kosher salt and Tellicherry pepper, and dubs the drink a Savory Batida. It’s the Campbell’s Chunky Soup of cocktails. It’s as if a Bloody Mary got into a fight with a mintless mojito. The balance is incredible—peppery, salty, sweet and zingy.

Seger next makes a Black Cherry Caipirinha using the Michigan Cherries from Mick Klug, garnishing the drink with a sprig of lavender. Seger knows you drink with your eyes and your nose first, and the lavender perfume knocks me out. This is the technique that reminds one most of Grant Achatz, who is famous for setting pillows stuffed with scented air (lavender air with an English Pea Soup for example) under his dishes.

The piece de resistance of the night though is a Mango-Habanero Daiqueri, inspired by a salad Seger once had at the defunct Outpost restaurant in Lakeview. Seger creates a syrup by steeping a seeded habanero and knobs of ginger in sugar and water, mixes it with mango puree, and then spikes the rim with an edible nasturtium flower and Chinese five spice—a mixture of peppercorns, star anise, cloves, fennel and cinnamon. This drink reminds me of something I once read about how sailors passing by the Southeastern coast of Africa catch wafts of spiced air from Zanzibar’s clove plantations.

Earlier, at the Green City Market, I had asked Seger if he assumes the traditional bartender role of armchair therapist. He said, “I usually don’t stand still long enough. I need to be moving or doing something. My therapy is like, whatever is going on in your life, you can have the most insanely delicious cocktail, and then who cares.”

As I take one more sip of my mango daiquiri, I couldn’t agree more.