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Bar Talk: Pan-Asian In the Heartland

Posted on  | December 22, 2015   Bookmark and Share
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Jeff Spear, General Manager, Sujeo, Madison, Wisconsin

Chef Tory Miller’s restaurant empire in Madison, Wisconsin, includes the Pan-Asian hotspot Sujeo. Here, General Manager Jeff Spear helms the bar, turning out cocktails like the Koreander Old Fashioned, Tongue Thai’d and Get a Job Yo Lazy Plum.


Beverage Media Group: What is the biggest misconception about Asian-inspired drinks?

Jeff Spear: That they need to have a base of sake or soju. Asian cocktails get mentally pigeonholed, but there are ingredients like lemongrass, kaffir lime, Thai chile and galangal that are so much fun to use with bourbon and gin.

BMG: How big an impact does Chef Miller’s cooking have on your cocktail list?

JS: He always brings energy that inspires you to look for the next new thing. For instance, he came in one day with a pound of prickly ash [shrub] and we ran a drink special with that for about two weeks. Nine times out of ten when I speak with him about the menu he gives me either an idea or an ingredient to run with. It keeps the program fresh and our bartenders on their toes. 

I think I’ve been lucky walking that line. He told me once he would rather I ask for forgiveness than permission. There have been times when he’s tried cocktails or picked up a menu and told me that it’s just not doing it for him. He knows what a Sujeo cocktail should be, and luckily we’ve managed to put together a whole list of them. 

BMG: Do you aim for your cocktails to pair with the food?

JS: I do. It can be a pretty fluid transition between taking flavors from the kitchen and crafting them into cocktails. Our Tongue Thai’d, is an excellent example. Essentially it’s a spicy mango margarita, but the inspiration came from a mango and shrimp curry we had on our menu. It was spiced with Thai chiles, so to get that similar flavor we infused our tequila with the peppers, and then built a fairly standard margarita with the addition of a fresh mango purée we were using to make a soft-serve ice cream. But it can also be challenging. One of my favorite Southeast Asian dishes is Tom Kha Gai soup. Constructing a like-minded cocktail hasn’t been easy.

BMG: Are you met with skepticism when attempting to turn guests onto your modern drinks?

JS: I’ve had people tell me they want to try everything on the menu and others tell me that all of them sounded terrible. To limit that second group of customers, I like to root most of our drinks in something accessible. For example, when I speak about the Shipwrecked, I call it a play on a coconut-rum-lime cocktail—which it definitely is—but I don’t mention the bitters or galangal because I don’t want to scare anyone away. When people do ask about the galangal, I call it a ginger-like root with floral notes and not as much spice as ginger. Finding that perfect balance between giving the guest something new and familiar at the same time is something I always shoot for.

BMG: What is most important to you in your exchanges with guests?

JS: What I want to do when a guest sits down is give them a cocktail that they enjoy. I’ll happily sling Rum and Cokes if it’s what makes them happy. I want people to drink what they want to and come back. Always err on the side of hospitality. That’s a mantra here. 


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