|Couture Cocktails from a Rising Star Mixologist
New York Rising Star Award winning mixologist Somer Perez left Bar44 at the Royalton Hotel this past winter to start her own mixology consulting company, Couture Cocktail Concepts. Perez has been busy in the past few months, working with restaurants, hotels, spirit companies, and industry associations. Known for her local, seasonal approach to classic cocktails, Perez is using her experience as a beverage director to create custom beverage programs that go beyond the cocktail list. What sets her apart from other consultants is her attention to staff training, quality control, and sales analysis. We caught up with the enterprising young mixologist to see how her new company is developing and get advice for those who want to follow in her path.
Moriah Simmons: How did you get started in mixology?
Somer Perez: I was actually a barback at Beacon Rest, working a few days a week, helping the bartenders. One of the bartenders was at the time was Audrey Saunders, and I saw all the cool stuff they were doing there and got really interested. I was there five years total; three years as head bartender, and two of those three I was also the chef’s assistant to Waldy Malouf. As the chef’s assistant, I started to see the marriage between the kitchen and mixology, and that’s when I started to think of it as a career path.
MS: Had you worked in the food and beverage industry before you got into mixology?
SP: I moved to New York after high school because I wanted to come up here and check out the restaurant scene. When you’re in your 20s there’s no better place than New York.
I actually started at Carmine’s 1999 as maitre d’, was maitre at Beacon before I became a barback. I think what attracted me to the industry was the pace and the way it always changes. For me it’s always been about the energy, trends, people--bartending is all about the people.
MS: Whom do you consider a mentor? Which mixologists have shaped your style?
SP: Watching Audrey was really important. Working with Waldy Malouf as well, and being his assistant that long. Learning the culinary side of things helped shape my style. I also learned all the old school cocktails from bartender Danny Nyanu who was at Beacon with me. He trained at Rainbow Room and taught me about the classics. That’s where my mixology is rooted. I do a lot of fresh and funky things now, but they’re all based in the classics. If you can’t make a good martini you can’t go anywhere from there.
MS: After a very successful tenure at the Royalton, you left this past winter. What prompted you to strike out on your own?
SP: For me it was about going to the next level--life’s all about reaching plateaus then going further. Working at the Royalton was incredible because I got to reinvent it, put it back on the map, and make something in midtown trendy. At the end of the day, even though I was the beverage director, it was still a large corporation. I think I saw in the industry that a lot of properties want a good cocktail list and a lot of places are hiring consultants. I wanted to be a part of that rather than staying at a hotel where I didn’t see room for growth. Around the time that the economy was flipping and a lot of beverage director positions were disappearing, so it made sense to get out on my own.
MS: What effect did your Rising Star Award have on your career?
SP: Massive, definitely one of the biggest things ever. Not only the attention, but it was important and special for me to be in a midtown hotel that’s never before been known as a place to go for good cocktails. It’s gotten me a lot of attention, a lot of clout. You need to have some sort of street cred in this industry, and I know the StarChefs award gave me that. It gives you a lot of credibility, and that’s important for a career. In the months after I won, I was getting a lot of opportunities that I couldn’t take advantage of--that was the definitely the catapult to start my own company.
MS: How would you describe the differences between working as a mixologist at one location vs being a consultant?
SP: Everything is different, really. It’s been a huge change for me given that for ten years I’ve worked in established places, for established brands. Now I’m working for myself and my brand, and it’s really what I was looking for; to work out of an office that’s mine, to say, this is what I’m going to do to set myself apart. It’s a life-changing experience to foray out on my own and stand behind what I’m doing. On my own, there’s nowhere to go but up as far as what I can achieve, not just provide a cocktail list but provide a program and a brand.
MS: What is the process of marketing yourself as a brand?
SP: For me so far, the process for building a brand is to keep every program specific to the location, but specific to my style, whether it’s a bar in Brooklyn, pub, hotel, tenjune in NJ, or Elizabeth in SoHo. You know the cocktails are mine and are consistent with my style. I’m aligning myself with brands I really believe in. I don’t double dip; I only work with only one gin, tequila, or puree brand at a time. They’re what I drink myself. In building a new business, you want to say yes to everything. I’ve had to turn down a few brands that don’t fit the concept. Couture means custom-made, custom fitted, and that’s how I work. My brand is all about fitting the property while staying true to my style. It’s like fashion--everyone knows a Marc Jacobs from a Zac Posen. They’re beautiful dresses, but different brands.
MS: Is there a lot of competition in the mixology consulting niche?
SP: There’s a lot of people doing it, and a lot of those people have been doing it longer than I have, and with bigger names. The market is extremely saturated in New York, but I’m offering something different since I come from a management background. Yes, I’m consulting, but I’m trying to offer more satellite management, more development. I’m setting myself apart from people doing just lists. Usually they’re big enough names that the company can put their name on the menu to drive interest.
MS: What are some projects you’re working on right now?
SP: I work with a lot of brands, bars, and restaurants with bars. Essentially what I offer is a satellite management program. I do the cocktail list, but I usually have between a four- and twelve-week contract. It includes the cocktail list, staff training, sales analysis, brad development, and brand ambassadorship. I built it like a Chinese menu. Some people just want the egg roll, some want the combo meal, but you can get whatever you want. A lot of properties want someone to come in to set up a system because the cocktails are nothing if the staff isn’t trained. There are different scenarios depending on the property or brand. Right now I’m working with a new gin and a new tequila, getting their brands out in the mixology community, coming up with cocktails for their events and websites, and sometimes introducing the spirits to restaurant clients.
MS: How do you find your clients, or do they seek you?
SP: So far a lot have come to me. There’s a really great company out there, BevForce, and I find clients or they find me through the site. In the very beginning, January and February, it was word of mouth. People were asking me to do stuff and I didn’t have time while I was at the Royalton. A lot of those first clients have renewed for the season. They’re opening up their gardens and they want spring drinks. Restaurant clients have been mostly word of mouth, and brands mostly through BevForce.
MS: What are the steps you take when someone approaches you to design a cocktail program?
SP: The first thing I do is to go over and have cocktails to see the service, how knowledgeable the bartenders are, and how it’s set up. Then I get a sales analysis. I look at the current cocktail list--is it balanced, seasonal, what do they need, what do they have too much of? Then I have to take into account the crowd and location and build the list from there. We do a tasting and make a decision on which cocktails to launch, have between 2 and 4 trainings for staff, and then I organize a launch party with my clients and PR contacts. The there’s a couple months of spot checking. I have a few industry-relevant spotters go in to check consistency levels. Then we do a sales analysis again to see what’s working and what’s not. That’s how the process flows.
MS: Are the people who do spot checks your employees?
SP: They’re people I know, mostly. They’re head bartenders from other places, my publicist, and friends of mine that I know that are constantly on Eater and Grub Street. It varies depending on the property. If it’s in Brooklyn, I send people who know that scene. They all fill out a questionnaire afterwards. Managers of the properties love it—a free spy on the staff! It’s a good tool because when I’m there the bartenders are on their game, but the best barometer of how your program is doing is other people.
MS: Do you have any full-time staff?
SP: I don’t have any permanent staff. I call people I’ve worked with before if I need them on a bartender level. I haven’t gotten to the place yet when I’m overwhelmed with the work and I need another staff member. I think the first hire would be to bring someone on for an assistant position if we need to do a staff training and I’m out of town.
MS: What is the most satisfying part of your job? And the least?
SP: Being able to manage my own time and not have someone do it for me. I get to say yes to things I really believe in rather than things I think I should. That’s been extremely rewarding so far.
The least? Saying no. But it’s all nominal, it’s a learning process. It’s tricky to say no to things I like personally, but haven’t been able to bring them into the business. It’s a small thing you learn as you go along.
MS: Are there any new ingredients that you’re excited about right now?
SP: Fee Brothers has put out some new bitters that are exciting to work with. The Rhubarb Bitters are amazing, and there’s a chocolate one that’s really hard to find. I’ve also been working with Perfect Puree to put out a new bar line. They have great purees, but none of them were bar-specific before. I’ve had a lot of fun with their yuzu flavor.
MS: What’s your prediction for the next big cocktail or spirit trend?
SP: Well, I’m seeing for sure a resurgence of old-school spirits. It’s funny; three years ago no one would have touched Chartreuse, Pernod, and Lillet Rouge rather than Blanc. Now they’re popping up on lists. Over the next 10-12 months, those will be more popular.
MS: What advice would you give someone who wanted to become a mixologist?
SP: Learn the classics, would be my biggest, best and most important advice. Literally, every cocktail, no matter how off-the-wall, is a derivation of a classic. I really believe that. That’s the advice I was given ten years ago and I’ve followed it ever since.
MS: What do you advise for a mixologist who wants to start consulting?
SP: I would say make sure you have a database, some believers, and stay true to your brand. It’s really easy when you’re working for yourself to want to say yes to everything. Remind yourself why you think you’re consulting. You wouldn’t do it if you didn’t thing you had something different to offer, so stick to that.