Adam Seger has for years worked with Lettuce Entertain You Enterprise in Chicago, most notably at Nacional 27. But these days, he's making a name for himself through his amaro-apertif, hum botanical spirit. With so many bartenders looking to spread their wings into product development, we thought it worthwhile to check in with someone who's cleared the hurdles.
Mix: Bartenders are increasingly getting involved in spirit production, but your hum liqueur is one (the only?) of the rare ones from a bartender - an amaro-style cordial. Briefly, how did its development come about?
Adam Seger: hum started as a rum-based liqueur called 'Martinique,' inspired by the great Rhum Agricoles of the French Caribbean with the botanicals hibiscus, ginger and cardamom so typical to the island. Needless to say, legal complications with the name, due to the French Government, sent us back to the drawing board. Over a few beers at a local watering hole, one of my early partners, Ferdia Doherty of Rain Communications (creators of Jared for Subway) said, "Let's call it hum, the Martinique spelling of Rhum without the 'r'." Two days later we discovered that Martinique is famous for its hummingbird, who loves hibiscus, hence our iconic bird on the label. My mentor Francesco Lafranconi tasted an early prototype and recommended the addition of kaffir lime, which added brightness and finesse. He casually said, "It's not an amaro, it's 'humaro.'" As a high proof botanical spirit with flowers, herbs, roots and spice known for their healing powers for centuries, it made sense to describe hum with this Italian connection as an 'American amaro.'
Mix: Coming up with recipes for things like bitters and tinctures is a matter of taste and research but getting into production is an enormous undertaking; how did you proceed on that?
Adam Seger: Let me rephrase this, "Coming up with recipes for things like bitters and tinctures is a matter of taste and research AND mistakes, intuition, luck and extreme perseverance." I was doing all this before it was cool and my only model to follow was gaz regan, who, having tasted me on his orange bitters pre-bottling in the late '90s, told me to go to an apothecary and to start reading herb books. My first bitters had too much mugwort and horehound (two of over 20 infusions I blended together) and smelled like a hamster cage. To compensate, I tried to cover this up with Brazilian rosewood, which made it smell like a massage parlor -- all for well over $300 worth of raw ingredients in my 'Noble Barman Experiment.' My third batch, I nailed it and won the TRU Organic Spirits Bitters Contest herbal category at Tales of the Cocktail in 2009. Now Modern Spirits does a gorgeous job making my organic bitters at their distillery in Southern California. With hum, the quality actually improved at the distillery with the collaboration with the highly talented craft distiller Derek Kassebaum of North Shore Distillery.
Mix: Did you develop many different versions on the road to the final recipe?
Adam Seger: There was only one version of hum from when I first created in my head the blend of hibiscus, ginger and cardamom. It was always 70 proof, but as with a winemaker, there have been notes and blind tastings of each batch and tweaks to make each batch better than the previous. hum made at the distillery is better than what I originally made at home and each new bin (bottles are labeled with the year and season of the bin) has been better than the previous. The changes now are very, very subtle and all reflect the individual character that people know as hum; it also ages beautifully and improves, very similarly to the great botanical spirit Chartreuse.
Mix: To me, the many flavors in hum work together partially because of the base spirit, rum. Did that come from working at a rum-focused bar Nacional 27?
Adam Seger: A pot still rum base was essential due to the mantra I followed -- "What grows together goes together" -- with the base spirit and botanicals all being typical to Martinique. I love rum, as it is a spirit that can be so incredibly different based on formula, terroir and production methods.
Mix: Now that hum has been out for more than a year, what can you say are the biggest differences between being a working bartender with a spirit product and a spirit producer who tends bar?
Adam Seger: I have the funnest job in the world. I have always made everything I could possibly make homemade behind my bar: bitters, tonic water, energy drinks, vermouth, maraschinos, infused spirits, liqueurs. Now I have one of my homemade spirits that I can mix with at other people's bars, and I get to see what other bartenders, mixologists and chefs do with hum. Every day I learn from them something new that I can do with it.
Mix: What advice do you give to your peers when they say they are considering crafting their own spirit product?
Adam Seger: Go for it and start now. Chefs have been producing their own commercial products for years. During this cocktail Renaissance, now is our time. Like anything, it will take longer, more perseverance and more money than you can ever imagine, so don't quit your day job in the meantime, and in the words of the great Winston Churchill, "Never give up. Never, never, never give up."
Mix: You've told me you're working on something special - growlers of hum?
Adam Seger: I am experimenting with aging hum in freshly dumped Templeton Rye Barrels as well as Lake Michigan AVA Hickory Creek Winery Cabernet Franc barrels. When bottled, we'll fill the barrels up with craft beer. Mmmmmm. We also have several barrels of aged hum botanicals that we call uber hum, basically hum bitters.
Mix: What's your favorite drink right now?
Adam Seger: Grower Rosé Champagne out of a Magnum.