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.