Toast of the Town

By tracking down rare liquors from around the world, importer Eric Seed is fueling the nation's classic-cocktail revival

The elevator opens onto the 27th floor of the Foshay Tower's new W Hotel, dumping us straight into a sendoff party at the Prohibition bar. The guest of honor is moving to L.A., and her "team"—Target-speak for "department"—is taking her out on the town. An older guy in a gray suit announces that he's buying drinks, and soon my crew finds itself hunched over a misting fishbowl with half a dozen new friends, sipping a drink called the Bubbly Sexpot through long, neon-colored straws.

Wilbur Foshay, the flashy businessman who built the art deco obelisk, would probably be thrilled that his formerly stolid study now glows with soft pink lights and serves cocktails popular in his day. (The mahogany-lined walls and black-and-pearl lounge furniture create a look the staff describes as "cigar lounge meets Barbie playhouse.") Bartenders mix drinks such as the classic Aviation, which gets its purple hue from crème de violette, a European spirit made by infusing macerated violets. (Don't let the floral flavor fool you; it's strong enough that a few sips will send you flying.) The Bermuda Rum Swizzle is far superior to the typical Hawaiian Punch-like tiki drinks found around town. It's made with pineapple juice and Velvet Falernum, a mixture of rum, lime, cloves, almonds, and sugar cane that was a staple in drinks made during the 1930s tiki craze. Tastes such as these may have been lost to history if not for the work of a local businessman once dubbed "the Indiana Jones of lost spirits."

WHILE THE REC ROOM in Eric Seed's Edina home contains the expected computer desk, rowing machine, gas fireplace, and big-screen TV, his bookshelf, safe to say, is not like those of his neighbors. Instead of literary tomes, it's filled with unusual libations that might look more at home on a perfume counter than in a liquor store, with their water-colored labels and decorative baubled glass.

The Green Door cocktail at Prohibition is smokin'
Jana Freiband
The Green Door cocktail at Prohibition is smokin'

Location Info

Map

W Hotel

821 Marquette Ave.
Minneapolis, MN 55402

Category: Hotels and Resorts

Region: Minneapolis (Downtown)

Seed, an importer of unusual spirits, gives me a tour through his collection: an orange aperitif the French like to mix with beer; a vodka made from fermenting the sugar from cows' milk and distilling it into alcohol; a bitter Croatian liquor made from wormwood, the same herb that's in absinthe. The names of many of the spirits Seed imports—an Austrian eau de vie, an Indonesian Batavia-Arrack—don't exactly roll off the tongue of the average drinker, even after a few Jack and Diets.

Seed's look is less globe trekker than business casual, with his short, preppy haircut, dress shirt, and jeans. That's because sourcing long-lost spirits has less to do with donning a pith helmet and bushwhacking through the jungle than navigating draconian import laws and negotiating contracts. Through his work, Seed is quickly expanding the tippler's toolkit, helping cocktail geeks avoid whopping airmail fees or the risks of smuggling bottles in suitcases. He's earned "cheers" all over the cocktail blogosphere—including the title "everyone's hero." Any big-city barkeep worth his salt-coated rim would love to buy Seed a drink.

To understand Seed's importance, first a little history. The cocktail, unsurprisingly, got its start in America's melting pot—the term was first published in the early 1800s. Its golden age arrived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when white-coated barmen concocted their own bitters for now-classic drinks like Sidecars and Manhattans. Prohibition quashed the creativity in cocktails (all ingenuity was needed just to procure black-market booze) and by the time alcohol was legal again, the convenient, heavily marketed, boxed baking mixes that began invading kitchen cupboards were starting to influence the liquor cabinet, as bottled cocktail mixers replaced fresh juices and syrups.

During the 1980s and 1990s, American drinkers developed a taste for fine wines and craft beers, bypassing jugs of Mogen David for bottles of Beaujolais and trading Pabst Blue Ribbon for India Pale Ale. In recent years cocktails, too, have been approached with similar seriousness. As cocktail culture makes a comeback in New York, San Francisco, and many major cities in between, spirits sales are growing faster than you can say, "shaken, not stirred."

David Wondrich, Esquire magazine's cocktail expert and an authority on drinking history, explains that there are two modern schools of mixology: a culinary approach—raiding the kitchen to use herbs, infusions, and nontraditional ingredients; and a classic one—buying up old bar manuals, which are now going for hundreds of dollars on eBay, and re-creating the wisdom of pre-Prohibition. (Locally, bartenders Johnny Michaels of La Belle Vie and Nick Kosevich of Town Talk Diner are among those pioneering the first school.) Interest in cocktails has spawned a Museum of the American Cocktail, a mixologist certificate, and an annual five-day festival, Tales of the Cocktail, which offers demos, tastings, seminars, and mixing competitions. "Bartending isn't just something you do between jobs or while you're waiting to be discovered," Wondrich says. "It's actually a craft, and there's an art to it."

Seed, whom Wondrich calls the "point man" in the cocktail craze, came to his position from a background not in bartending but in business development. But he's always been an epicure. When he worked in the corporate strategy group at Northwest Airlines, he sat on the committee that evaluated wines to serve in business class. In the autumn of 2005, Seed launched his business by importing two Alpine liqueurs he'd discovered while studying abroad in Austria. At first he sold the spirits to upscale restaurants and ski resorts in Colorado. But after bartenders began making other requests, Seed's role evolved into something like that of a personal shopper for the country's best mixologists.

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