Nacional 27 is one of Chicago’s most acclaimed restaurants. The downtown eatery has become famous for the vibrancy of its food and electrically charged atmosphere. The "27" refers to how many Latin and South American dishes are represented on its menu.
Among the restaurant’s many draws is Adam Seger. In addition to being the venue’s general manager, he is the sommelier and genius behind the ever-changing selection of garden-fresh cocktails. On any given night, the large oval bar at the front of the restaurant is two-people deep with devotees of Seger’s “drink-like-you-eat” cocktail style.
“The first thing most guests experience at a restaurant is its drinks, so I’m often amazed how many operators don’t place more emphasis on the bar,” he says. “An important element of being a successful restaurateur is to involve your bartenders in the creative process. You’ll get more ownership and passion from your team this way. Great things are bound to come of it.”
Now in his early 40s, Seger has spent the majority of his life focused on his career. He made his first banana smoothie at age 5, worked as a dishwasher at age 12 and managed a nine-room bed and breakfast during his junior year in high school. From there, Seger bartended at The Statler Hotel in Ithaca, N.Y., while he was enrolled in Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration. After college, he became the director of food and beverage at the former Dallas Medallion Hotel and, later, the director of restaurants at The Seelbach (now the Seelbach Hilton) in Louisville, Ky. Somewhere in there he found the time to earn his advanced sommelier certificate. An overnight sensation he’s not.
Seger has become an ardent supporter of incorporating fresh ingredients into cocktails. In fact, his herb garden abuts the entrance to Nacional 27.
“Good things happen when you break down the barriers between your bar and kitchen,” he says. “The best cocktails are crafted using the freshest ingredients, so operators should open up the kitchen prep coolers to their mixologists. Not only will their drinks be more vital and flavorful, it’ll increase produce turnover and create exciting food and cocktail flavor bridges.”
Two Seger creations illustrate his point. The savory Balsamic Strawberry Mojito is prepared by muddling in an empty mixing glass a small handful of fresh mint leaves, strawberries, brown sugar and lime wedges. He then stirs in a jigger of 10 Cane Rum and adds ice, a healthy dose of sparkling water and a 1/2-teaspoon drizzle of aged balsamic vinegar. The bestselling cocktail is delicious and delightfully aromatic.
The Garden Fresh Mojitonico features muddled cucumbers, green tomatoes, fresh herbs, Plymouth Gin, tonic water and a lime-wedge garnish. The ingredients meld seamlessly into a delightfully spry cocktail.
“Even people who say that they don’t usually care for gin really like this drink,” Seger says.
One of his most celebrated drinks is the Heirloom Tomato Cocktail. In a pint glass, Seger vigorously muddles lime wedges, heirloom- and green-tomato sections, basil leaves, kosher salt and fresh black pepper. He then adds a jigger of Gran Centenario Plata Tequila, a near fill with tonic and a splash of balsamic vinegar. The cocktail is vital, engaging and brimming with sun-drenched flavors.
Seger has even devised a signature cocktail geared specifically at the dessert crowd. Priced at $55, the Century Alexander is a museum-grade specialty made with Blandy’s 1935 Verdelho Madeira, Camus XO Cognac, Clément Créole Shrub Liqueur and housemade tres leches ice cream.
“The Century Alexander is as beautiful as it is delicious. It’s an ideal way to finish off a marvelous evening, which is really the point,” Seger says.
In 2010, Seger and London mixologist Joe McCanta developed and successfully launched Hum, an American-born, amaro-styled liqueur that must be sipped neat to be appreciated. It derives its brilliant character from a blend of pot-stilled Martinique rhum, fair-trade hibiscus, organic ginger, green cardamom, kaffir lime and raw Hawaiian sugar cane. The 70-proof liqueur has a wafting peppery and floral bouquet and waves of spicy, palate-warming flavors.
Seger hopes more mixologists start bringing their spirits, bitters and infusions to the market: “There is a great deal of talent behind America’s bars — both in big and small towns — and many craft distillers are open to partnering with bartenders and mixologists. I think this is a significant beverage trend in the making.”
As a result of his increasing national presence, Seger has become a highly sought-after speaker at trade shows. He contends his message to fellow beverage operators is fairly straightforward.
“Educate, involve and inspire. The more people know, the more valuable they become,” he says. “Don’t worry about teaching your staff everything about bartending and mixology only to have them leave for greener pastures. Worry instead about them being uninformed and staying.”