Interview with Mixologist Chef Somer Perez of Royalton Hotel – New York, NY

September 16

Heather Sperling: How did you get into mixology?
Somer Perez: I started when I graduated high school – I decided to move to New York for 6 months and see what happened. I started as a maitre d’hotel and ended up at Beacon where I spent 6 years. At the time, Audrey Saunders was behind the bar, and that’s where the buzz was. Dale DeGroff helped design the beverage program and I started as a bar back. I was working 3 nights a week while Audrey was cutting limes, juicing orange juice, and making purees while Waldy Malouf, the chef, would roast fruit for the sangria. This was 2000-2001…. and I was only 20 at the time. I wasn’t supposed to be there!

When Audrey left and I sort-of slipped into her role as bartender. I was learning from classically trained, old-school people, so I learned the classics: sazerac, martini, and Manhattan. I was also working as Waldy Malouf’s assistant, so I was doing a lot culinary-wise, which has influenced what I do now.

HS: How did you become beverage director at Royalton?
SP: I wanted to learn the management end of things, and The Rivington Hotel was looking for someone. I soon got involved in their cocktail program and became beverage director for the hotel. After a year, the hotel’s food program was still in flux, so I started looking elsewhere. Royalton was being renovated and re-done – they wanted to re-vamp the beverage program with cocktails and wine, and that’s what I did.

HS: How would you describe your style of mixology?
SP: It’s my classic training, updated. So far it’s been a perfect marriage between my thought process and what the hotel wants. And it’s about bringing fresh, seasonal things to the drink, and being very ingredient-driven. I respect foamers, machines, and avant-garde cooking, but my style is very straightforward, flavorful, and seasonal.

HS: What is your current favorite seasonal ingredient?
SP: I have a love affair with my spring cherries. There’s nothing better though they’ll be done in 2 weeks. They are so delicious.

HS: What are some current trends you’ve seen in the cocktail market? How have trends changed?
SP: I’m seeing a lot of products made in-house. People are making their own syrups, sodas, and purees. The molecular movement is also having an influence on drinks. I’m seeing a lot of infusions too – it’s not new, but it’s really big. I hardly go anywhere that doesn’t have an infused spirit.

HS: Do you think you’re on the radar here?
SP: I think we’re starting to get on the radar. I would like us to someday be mentioned in the same sentence as Pegu Club, PDT, Milk & Honey, and Death & Co. We’re on the outskirts, but we’re working on it…

HS: How often do you change the menu?
SP: I change it seasonally. I keep 5 of the classics on – like the Honey Sling and the Velvet Rope – but I change at least 3-4 drinks every season. I don’t do a holiday list – I just have winter/spring/summer/fall.

HS: What goes into creating a new cocktail? How long does it take to create a new cocktail?
SP: The first thing I do is make a list of seasonal herbs, fruits, and vegetables. I call my distributors and ask what I can get that’s local and seasonal, and I move on to spirits from there. With Bluecoat I was looking for a cool gin that wasn’t Tanqueray; and right now I have two new tequilas that I’m using. With a recent drink, I started with a base of blackberries and moved to tequila… So the process starts flavor, then spirit and then something classic that I can incorporate in, whether its Lillet or Campari, or a method, like a sling.

HS: What is your favorite cocktail to make?
SP: Martinis – it’s hard to make them! To turn out a perfectly balanced gin martini you need a balance between ice, glass, timing, and olives. The first week of training for all my bartenders is completely focused on martinis, old fashioneds, Manhattans, and sours, and on the last day we do sazeracs.

HS: How do you hire?
SP: When I need new employees, I always go to my bartenders first and see if they can recommend anyone. I tend to not go towards people that have a lot of club experience – I would hire someone that worked at The Manhattan Hotel before someone that worked at Lotus. I want people who can take their time. The drinks are really ingredient driven, with only 4 steps max, but that philosophy is important.

HS: What are your career goals?
SP: I like the way my career has gone so far – I’m very proud of what I’ve done. I want to start writing some books. My own place would be cool, but it’s not my main goal – I really want to teach and write. I love bartending in New York and I don’t want to see New York go back into the trendy-clubby drink phase – I want to teach and help spread my philosophy. I’d like to open other places that train bartenders like Audrey and Dale did for me.