Toast of the Town
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.
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.
Yet that label makes the process sound far too simple. To bring a spirit into the U.S., Seed first samples several products before selecting one to submit for regulatory review. The product's ingredients, bottle size, and labeling must abide by U.S. standards, and the product must be registered in every state in which it will be sold. For the spirit to make its way into bars, restaurants, and liquor stores, a local distributor must be convinced to carry it—often a tough sell for niche, small-volume products. That's why Seed's spirits have been the talk of coastal bartenders for months before appearing in Minneapolis. "It's a ridiculous system," Wondrich says. "Eric's a brave man for dealing with it."
In Seed's kitchen, I take a sip of Zirbenschnaps, an Austrian pine liqueur whose name Seed wisely shortened to Zirbenz when he brought it to the American market. This particular producer has been making the spirit since 1797, and the process involves mountaineers hiking to the top of the tree line to pick immature pinecones, which are then infused in alcohol. The spirit glows ruby red, and my first sip seizes on my tongue—it's bitter, sweet, and as piny as a Christmas tree. I don't know that I'd drink it neat, as they do in Austria, but I could imagine it as a solid stand-in for the juniper flavor in a game dish or gin-based cocktail.
I also try Seed's pear and apricot eaux de vie and liqueurs (the former are basically fruit brandies, pure distilled fruit, and the latter combine eaux de vie with fruit juice, water, and sugar). These spirits, which are becoming popular with pastry chefs and chocolatiers, are similar to mass-market schnapps except that they derive their flavor from actual fruit instead of chemical flavorings, which gives them an ambrosial scent and a smooth, pure flavor that Seed describes as being like "the difference between Kool-Aid and fruit juice." (When I get home, I sip the pear Absolut and peach DeKuypers in the liquor cabinet, and they taste like rubbing alcohol and cough syrup by comparison.) One of Seed's newest offerings is allspice dram, Jamaican rum flavored with allspice berries whose spicy notes of clove, cinnamon, and nutmeg would be perfect for wassail or mulled wine.
Back at Prohibition, my friends and I decide to take over our own couch and order a bowl of the Arrack Punch, which contains what is perhaps Seed's most interesting import—one that hasn't been available in the U.S. since Prohibition. The unusual spirit Batavia-Arrack (which means "Jakarta spirit") has been made in Indonesia since the 1600s via a process of fermenting molasses, sugar cane, and red rice. It was an essential component of punch, the dominant social beverage of colonial America, which is thought to be the oldest mixed drink. The bitter, skunky spirit lends an edge of maturity to a drink being sipped through neon straws and reminds me of one of Seed's remarks: "Drinking a cocktail should be an experience that's every bit as exciting as what the pastry chef is doing." And, with his help, it is.
Prohibition is in the W Hotel at the Foshay, 821 Marquette Avenue, Minneapolis; 612.339.9900. Spirits from Seed's importing company, Haus Alpenz, may be found at several restaurants and liquor stores around the metro, including Surdyk's, Haskell's, La Belle Vie, Nick and Eddie, Town Talk Diner, and the St. Paul Grill. Visit www.alpenz.com for more information.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Minneapolis & St. Paul dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.