Sense Memory: Tales of the Bartender

Mixologist and author Mark Sexauer talks about creating the perfect cocktail, successfully self-publishing and his life behind the bar.
By Denise Sakaki

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There are not a lot of careers that could be described as romantic – even the life of a chef has lost some of its luster and mystique, with all the overexposure of reality television. But there’s still a touch of rogue debonair and Old World elegance in the world of bartenders. They are living libraries of cocktail and distilled spirit histories, they are our confidants and keepers of secrets; a willing ear to partake of the day’s woes, and they’ll make sure we’ve got a strong drink in hand. I turned the tables on Seattle-based cocktail mixologist, Mark Sexauer, and had him tell me his story, of his life behind the bar as well as his recent foray into the publishing world. His book and labor of love, Aphrodisiacs with a Twist was just released, setting a high standard of quality for independent publishing, as well as offering an exotic menu of unique cocktails to mix at home.

So, tell me your life story.
After 5 years in the Army — 14 months in Iraq — I got out and bought a really run-down dive bar in Everett with another Sergeant from my Platoon. We ran it for three years and during that time, I started to fall in love with the industry. After we sold it, I bartended from place to place. A bar manager position came up, and I continued to learn and grow. The last three years I have been working on the book with the last year really pushing to get it out. I currently do trade advocacy for the Bacardi USA portfolio in Seattle.

What was the first cocktail you had that convinced you a drink can be complex and nuanced?
A Martinez (a cocktail featuring sweet vermouth and Old Tom Gin, a sweetened variety of gin). To me, changing from dry vermouth to sweet vermouth helped make a completely different cocktail than a Martini, but still using the same base spirit, was the beginnings of becoming fascinated with cocktails.

Who are some of your greatest influences as you’re mixing and creating new drinks?
The internet has without a doubt helped grow the cocktail industry, because now we are seeing on a global level what bartenders/managers are doing with their menus. Checking blogs like the current owner of Canon, Jamie Boudreau (SpiritsandCocktails.com), and Portland’s Jeffrey Morgenthaler (Jeffrey Morgenthaler.com), was a huge motivator for me to see the amazing things they were doing behind the bar. Casey Robison at Barrio was a big personal influence for me to be better, and see that there are many career options in this industry.

Your book, Aphrodisiacs with a Twist, is very much a love letter to the art of making unique cocktails using culinary ingredients like figs, fennel seeds, even using a cocktail to top a fresh oyster. What inspired you to write a book, and how did the process evolve as you were working on it?
I was bummed out by the quality of cocktail books that I was seeing at book stores. So many of the ones I have don’t have any pictures — which are great for me. I dork-out like crazy [over cocktails], but it seems our industry can be a little intimidating to somebody who has never made a cocktail before. So getting an approachable, very visual cocktail book out was the big goal. Some of the drinks are so easy, using only two ingredients. Some of the drinks are very complicated, to pique the interest of the pros. Most everything is somewhere in the middle, though.

A lot of people are considering writing food or drink-related books, especially with the ease of independent publishing these days. What’s your advice for them – lessons learned, things to avoid?
Lessons learned – budget. Things to avoid – indecision. Budget and spending money is the big downside of self-publishing, I spent a large amount to get this book in my hands. It’s also very hard to be seen, so hiring a PR person is key. Indecision creates time consuming changes and edits. Have a detailed plan in place with a timeline… [and having] a clear, easy way to explain the vision of your idea will make the path much easier.

Your book has a lot of informative preface material that’s very friendly and encouraging to readers who may not be familiar with something outside of a rum and coke – how do you hope to educate readers on the art of a balanced cocktail?
I hope if anything — and I hit on this in the book — is when making decisions about where to go out, go to a cocktail-focused bar. Watch the bartenders, see what tools they are using, how they’re stirring, shaking, juicing. The fact is, it takes years to become even an adequate bartender, so I hope some of the easier cocktails give beginners some motivation to keep experimenting at home and building a love for the craft.

What’s a cocktail trend/ingredient/entire drink that needs to go away?
Haha, energy drinks need to go away. The word ‘skinny’ needs to go away — alcohol has calories, it’s fine! There is no such thing as ‘diet vodka.’ Marshmallow, Fruit Loop and Whipped Cream flavored vodkas need to go away, like yesterday. In my book, if you can’t juice it, we don’t use it. I don’t drink to get drunk, like a lot of people don’t just eat to get full. You have one body, put natural things in it, and it’ll last awhile. Fruit Loop vodka! Come on…

How many times will you admit to seeing the movie, Cocktail, and do you secretly attempt the bottle-flipping tricks?
Lost track, and I have DVDs, YouTube videos, and magazines on what is called ‘Flair Bartending.’ I’m not good and don’t attempt it while behind the bar, but I do think an element of bartending is being an entertainer. Tossing a bottle here and there is all good in my book. As long as I still get my drink in a timely manner.

Life of a bartender – sum it up in a single sentence:
Who wouldn’t want to spend their work hours making cocktails, flirting, talking about the world and travel, be completely flexible to actually travel, spend very little time in front of a computer, see people cry, yell, laugh, fall, hug, break-up, hook-up, and be able to buy anything you want by just picking up a couple extra shifts.

Denise Sakaki

Denise Sakaki

Denise Sakaki is a freelance food writer and photographer who is always searching for the connections between food and personal experience. She is the creator of the food blog Wasabi Prime and contributor to Serious Eats, 425 Magazine and Drink Me Magazine.

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