Bartender’s Notebook: Seth Shaver reveals his secrets at the American Restaurant

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Seth Shaver is not from Kansas City. You can hear it in his voice, in the way the rounded vowels of his native Iowa draw themselves out, a memento of his years in South Dakota. Nor is the American Restaurant’s head bartender a longtime maker of craft cocktails, though that relative lack of experience isn’t something your senses tell you when he makes you a drink.

“I do feel like I sort of snuck into this job,” Shaver says. “The American is the polar-opposite style of bartending than what I was used to — I came from higher-volume bars, so there was a lot more popping bottles of beer and making simple mixed drinks. The craft scene was completely unfamiliar to me, and I kind of just got thrown into the frying pan with no mentor. I did a lot of self-teaching. I dove into books right away.”

He also got schooled. When 26-year-old Shaver took over the bar program from Paige Unger last November, the American sent him to several high-level bartending courses to help him prepare for the work.

I’d say he got straight A’s. Drinking at Shaver’s bar, I’ve been consistently impressed with his creations. The American’s cocktail menu is now entirely his own, and it’s laced with inventive pairings and uncommon ingredients. He keeps a black notebook with him on the job, full of recipes, ideas, and notes on guests. Shaver, Iowa modest, insists that his drinks owe much to the generosity of the kitchen; the restaurant beams the credit right back at him.

“Since he’s taken over the bar program, it’s given us — the restaurant as a whole — a chance to integrate the cocktail program into the bigger picture,” Ross Jackson, the American’s wine director, tells me. “He’s got good ideas and great instincts.”

Today, I’ve come to the American to tap into those instincts — as well as take advantage of the restaurant’s midafternoon stillness — and delve into some of Shaver’s practices.

He makes all his own syrups and shrubs, a discipline not unique to Shaver but one that benefits here from his restaurants’s unusually strong supply chain. I’m thinking, for instance, of his Azuleta syrup with violet crystals, and his kumquat shrub. Today, the idea is a chili-lime shrub, which doesn’t yet have a place on Shaver’s menu.

“Historically, a shrub is a drinking vinegar, dating back to colonial times,” Shaver tells me as he preps his ingredients. “Basically, it’s a macerated fruit or vegetable, soaked in vinegar and cut down with sugar to sweeten it and make it drinkable, used in addition to a spirit.”

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In the American’s auxiliary kitchen, Shaver combines two cups of sugar, two cups of apple cider vinegar, six quartered limes, two tablespoons of crushed red pepper and four tablespoons of honey in a large plastic bag. This concoction will be vacuum-sealed and set over a hot-water bath for several hours. (If he were at home, Shaver says, he’d aim to get the same effect by simmering the mixture over low heat on a stovetop.) The heavy-looking bag eventually reduces enough to yield no more than 24 ounces of shrub.

Next: Campari ice cubes.

“Some of my guests are confused by how I freeze liquor,” Shaver says as he measures out the bright-red liqueur into a large ice tray, “but it’s really super-easy. It’s three-quarters of an ounce Campari to 2 ounces water. I love using these cubes in cocktails because as the ice melts, the booze transitions the flavor profile of the drink. It’s kind of a two-for-one.”

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Shaver’s Campari cubes feature in his menu’s Manhattan Boulevard — a combination whiskey Manhattan and Boulevardier. But today, based on our mutual affinity for the classic gin-and-Campari pairing, Shaver suggests building a Martinez over the cube and letting the drink melt its way toward Negroni-ness.

“A Martinez is traditionally made with Old Tom Gin — which is just a little sweeter than, say, your London dry — sweet vermouth and Luxardo, which is a maraschino-cherry liqueur, with a couple dashes Angostura bitters,” Shaver reminds me as he stirs and strains. The mixture is a blazing sunset red when it goes over the cube into a double rocks glass. He flames an orange rind over the top — “to add some density, and a little layer of smoke and orange,” he says — and serves me.

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He calls it Marty’s Secret, and it’s as seductive as a whispered confidence. The glinting red Martinez washes over the bright-pink Campari rock, the sweetness of the Old Tom and the thickness of the vermouth answering the Campari’s light bitterness. As the moments go by, the orange notes and the lingering Campari assert themselves further, a fine trick.

For the chili-lime experiment, Shaver has a bottle prepped already, and I take a taste. It’s sour like a Warhead, with just a hint of spice in back. He tells me that he has tried this shrub, unsuccessfully, with rum and Cachaça. In both cases, he says, the shrub was too potent and the spirits too sweet.

I suggest agave, something earthy and strong to balance the hammer-blunt shrub. Shaver pulls down bottles of Del Maguey Vida Mezcal and Tequila Ocho Plata. Jackson, who has joined our party, suggests a riff on a margarita, so Shaver combines the tequila, the mezcal and the shrub with lemon juice and Cointreau, shakes it over ice, and rims some coupe glasses with salt and crushed Thai chili peppers.

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Jackson and Shaver name this the Inverted Sombrero — a coy reference to the shape of the coupe glass, they insist. The liquid is an almost iridescent sea-foam green, and the red-and-white salt around the rim sparkles like treasure. It’s a subtle margarita, with the mezcal tangible by scent more than by flavor. The drink’s smoothness is unmolested by the delicate kick of chili spice at the end.

“That’s nice,” Jackson says, nodding as he tastes it. “I think this is a menu item.” Shaver nods, too, and flips open that black notebook.

CHILI LIME SHRUB

2 cups sugar
2 cups apple cider vinegar
6 limes, quartered
2 tablespoons crushed red chili flakes
4 tablespoons honey

Combine ingredients in a large pot. Let simmer on low heat for 4-6 hours, or until the lime juice blends well into the vinegar. Strain liquid into container. Yields 20-24 ounces.

MARTY’S SECRET

1 Campari ice cube
1-1/2 ounces Old Tom Gin
1-1/2 ounces sweet vermouth
1/4 ounce Luxardo
2 dashes Angostura bitters

Combine ingredients into mixer. Stir, strain over Campari ice cube, garnish with flamed orange rind.

THE INVERTED SOMBRERO

1-1/2 ounces Tequila Ocho Plata
1/3 ounce Del Maguey Vida Mezcal
3/4 ounce house-made chili lime shrub
1/2 ounce lemon juice
1/2 ounce Cointreau

Rim coupe glass with salt and chili powder. Combine ingredients into shaker. Shake, strain into coupe glass.

See also

Bartender’s Notebook: Novel’s Hoap Wilson boasts her drinks with local seasonal produce
Bartender’s Notebook: At the W bar, Mike Strohm’s cocktails are the best kinds of show and tell
Bartender’s Notebook: At Rye, Julie Ohno masterminds more than just drinks 
Bartender’s Notebook: Peeking into the Bristol’s Porthole cocktails
Bartender’s Notebook: Julep’s Katy Wade finds a strong helper for whiskey

Categories: Food & Drink