Seth Sempere always knew he wanted to make cocktails.
He started out washing dishes and delivering pizzas at a small, family-owned restaurant in Vermont, where they later gave him a chance to start pouring beer and wine. He then worked his way into becoming a bar manager, then moved across the country, and is now shaking up craft cocktails at Spur Gastropub in Belltown.
"I think one of the things I love about working in this town is the emphasis on hospitality," he said as he worked on creating his winning cocktail for me. "In a lot of ways we're coming back to the idea that the primary function of our role is to create a warm and welcoming environment for people to come in and enjoy themselves."
And enjoy myself I did as I sipped his award-winning gin-absinthe-thai basil concoction.
Called "Time Has Its Revenges," Sempere's cocktail was simply perfect. It was tart, but smooth. Refreshing, but complex. And it was enough to win him the regional title of "Most Imaginative Bartender" by Bombay Sapphire. He competed against 9 other bartenders a few weeks ago and is now headed to Las Vegas for the national competition.
"The competition was a lot of fun," Sempere said. "It was also nerve wracking to an extent. It's funny because I've made this cocktail plenty of times, and bartending is something I've done for five years; but once you're in front of a crowd, it can be hard to maintain the same level of confidence. I think the bar is a security blanket for a lot of bartenders. When you're back here, you're protected."
The judges made their choice based on appearance, aroma, imagination, and taste.
"I borrowed the name for the drink from 'The Quiet American' by Graham Greene, a novel that takes place in Vietnam written by an English writer," Sempere told me. "Gin is a classic English spirit and Thai Basil is a popular ingredient in Vietnam. It's about hindsight. I think it's a bright drink, but there are also some contemplative moments."
While there was literary motivation for Sempere's winning drink, he says craft cocktails certainly don't need to be overly complicated or intimidating.
"There are a few basic rules most people can follow to make a good drink," he said. "The biggest thing you can do is know when to shake and when to stir a cocktail. Basically: if there's all spirit and no juice, like a Manhattan or Old Fashioned or Martini, 99% of the time it should be stirred."
"When you shake a drink, you're essentially carbonating it. It doesn't last terribly long, but the texture difference is pronounced. A properly stirred martini will have a really silky mouth feel to it. If it's shaken, it's going to be thin and bubbly."
"Every drink should also be properly diluted. Stronger is not always better. That's why you see bartenders straw-tasting. They're not just stealing your booze, they're making sure to see that it tastes right."
Sempere will head to Las Vegas for the national competition in September. He'll make "Time Has Its Revenges" for judges there, while also being challenged by other on-the-spot competitions.
Time Has Its Revenges
1.75 oz Bombay Sapphire Gin
.75 oz blanc vermouth
.25 oz absinthe
.66 oz Thai basil drinking vinegar
.5 oz fresh lime juice
For the standard cocktail shake and double-strain into a cocktail glass