ELIZABETH PEARCE (originally published September 14, 2011)
A few weeks ago, my boyfriend Lee and I took a trip to St. Louis. While I loved the beautiful Beaux Arts architecture, the lush Botanical Garden, and seeing the Cardinals win, the highlight of my trip was the two nights I spent in the dim light of the bar, Sanctuaria, chatting and drinking with two guys who really love what they do for a living: Matt Seiter and Joel Clark.
It was Thursday night, our first real night in town, and Lee and I had put away a hefty pasta meal on The Hill, St. Louis’ oldest Italian neighborhood. Though stuffed and a bit sleepy from our carb overload, we decided to get an after dinner drink. I’d read that Sanctuaria had a spectacular cocktail list, so we headed over with the plan to sit in their courtyard and “have just one drink.” We never made it past the bar.
Joel Clark is my favorite kind of bartender because if you ask him a question about anything to do with drinking, the next thing you know, you are getting the whole story of that ingredient: where it comes from, how it’s made, how it functions in a drink, followed by “Here, go ahead and try my homemade orgeat/falernum/bitters.” He told me Sanctuaria is a place staffed by “passionate geeks,” an apt description of the kind of guy who can spend 20 minutes elucidating the merits of using Pommeau de Normandie in lieu of Calvados in a cocktail. But for all his knowledge, Clark isn’t stuffy at all. Unlike many high end “mixologists,” Clark eschews the bow tie and sleeve garter for a T-shirt and jeans. He arrived in St. Louis in 2005, “a green farm boy,” from Illinois, and worked his way up in the city’s bar world until late 2009 when Matt Seiter called him to offer him a job at Sanctuaria. We settled into our bar stools, visiting with Clark, sampling his wares, and soon met Matt Seiter, whom Clark dubs his “sensei.”
Matt Seiter, an “encyclopedia of cocktail history,” according to Clark, is the creator of Sanctuaria’s famous (infamous?) Cocktail Club. For a $20 initiation fee, members receive a salt and pepper composition notebook in which to record their musings about the 150 cocktails available for sampling from the bar’s extensive cocktail menu. After several years of running bars in Chicago, Seiter returned to his hometown of St. Louis with the dream of a cocktail club tucked in his back pocket. In August of 2009, the owners of Sanctuaria tapped Seiter to manage the bar of their new Latin American themed restaurant. Though told to have a bar with the widest tequila list in the city, Seiter blithely ignored them and created instead what Clark calls “one of the premier cocktail spots in the Midwest, if not the country.”
The specialty cocktail menu was recently nominated for World’s Best Cocktail Menu at Tales of the Cocktail, an internationally respected celebration of spirits held in New Orleans each year. The list of 150 drinks is split almost 50/50 between classic cocktails and those of Seiter’s creation. Two of my favorites were The Enemy of my Enemy, made with Flor de Cana rum, yellow Chartreuse, lemon juice, cardamom tincture, and fresh basil, and the Too Rare To Die featuring Buffalo Trace Bourbon, St. Germain, lemon juice, Clear Creek Douglas Fir Liqueur, and chocolate bitters. Both of these cocktails caused me to pause and go “Hmmm.” And while each featured an ingredient I had never tried before (and in the case of the Fir Liqueur, never heard of), I never felt like they were added just to show off how hip the bartenders were. Every note was considered. Even the glasses the drinks were served in were lovely and drink appropriate. Clark told me that he and Seiter had “turned into little old ladies,” scouring flea markets and thrift stores for dainty stemware. All the cocktails I sampled were balanced, clever, and delicious, and each made me want to keep working my way down the menu. Which is probably why Thursday night was “one of those nights” that turned into “one of those mornings.”
The bar wasn’t super crowded, so we had time to really visit with Clark, who after introducing us to Seiter, then introduced us to a group of folks that walked in sometime around 12:30 including Brandon, his girlfriend Allison, and their friend, Jack. I’ve heard liquor referred to as “the oil of conversation,” and we were all well-oiled that night. Though Lee and I were reluctant to abandon such a diverting bunch for something as useless as sleep, we tipped our hats at last call and made ready to head back to the hotel. But before we could leave, Clark entered a 10pm “bar stool reservation” in the restaurant computer to ensure our return visit 36 hours later.
When we arrived Saturday night, the bar was packed, so we joined Brandon, Allison and Jack in the courtyard, sharing cocktails, a cool night, great food and even better company. We discovered that Brandon was the first person to finish the Cocktail Club Challenge, though he won’t be the last. Seiter told me that when they started the club in December of 2010, they’d hoped to have 100 people signed up by summer 2011. As of mid-August, they had over 450 members.
I like the idea of this challenge because it is something totally achievable. If you’ve read my previous column on “Getting Drunk,” you’ll know I am a big fan of achievable goals. In a world of uncertainty, it’s comforting to have a goal you know you can attain. You may not give up smoking, or lose those 20 pounds, or get that promotion, date or raise, but with a minimal financial commitment, and a bit of time, you can confidently announce to your friends “I am going to drink all 150 drinks on the Cocktail Menu.” And once you do, the rewards don’t stop.
When we talked with Brandon about finishing the challenge of the Cocktail Club, we discovered a motivating carrot. In addition to trying all of these wonderful cocktails, now, every third drink he orders at Sanctuaria is free for this rest of his life or the life of the bar. While this may seem like the bar will eventually lose money, Brandon notes that now he “doesn’t want to go drink anywhere else.” He’ll have a drink at Sanctuaria, and then think to himself, “If I have one more drink, I get the next one free.” He also noted this logic can extend through the fourth, fifth, seventh and even the eighth drink. In these difficult economic times, completing the Cocktail Club challenge is really a gesture of frugality—one is drinking for future savings.
Brandon told us that he tried to take good notes about each drink, so he could remember the ones he really liked and order them in the future. Allison laughed and observed that her salt and pepper book contained mostly notes about the nights she spent drinking, rather than the cocktails consumed. I love the idea of the composition notebook. While I acknowledge the handiness of taking notes on your I Phone and the ease with which someone can take a photo of a drink and blog to the whole world what you think about the beverage in front of you, the act of writing down your thoughts and memories of a drink and of a night in a book, in something that feels not unlike a diary, feels both more immediate and indulgent than just taking a picture. Or conversely, I also like that you can pass your book around the table and get your friends to pen their observations of the evening, all under the heading of something as full of possibility as Rum Runner’s Mishap.
We stayed in the courtyard, talking into the night, sharing both the table full of food and everyone’s drinks. The conviviality was effervescent, so much so that by the end of the night, Lee and I had invited everyone to New Orleans to come stay with us for Carnival. I’m not sure where they will all sleep, but I’m absolutely sure they will all come. They say the Inuits have dozens of words for different kinds of snow. Christians and Ancient Greeks noted there were many kinds of love, including romantic, platonic and spiritual. I have decided we need more than one word for friend, specifically the kind of friend you make in one night while drinking together. Whatever you want to call it (bar friend?), I made several at Sanctuaria.
I don’t believe my experience at Sanctuaria is unusual. Clark observed that he is “really good at hospitality.” When you talk to him, you want to keep talking. He said he wasn’t sure why, but I know. I wanted to keep talking to him for the same reason I wanted to keep talking to Seiter, for the same reason I wanted to keep drinking their drinks, for the same reason interesting people decide to take the challenge and hang out on the back patio, visiting till last call. Because it’s so clear that Seiter and Clark find utter delight in what they do and their enthusiasm for their creations is infectious. I had a damn good time at Sanctuaria, and I can’t wait to go back.
You can find more information about Sancturia here, http://www.sanctuariastl.com/
And Matt Seiter offered the recipe for one of his favorite drinks, The Prince of Jalisco
1 ½ ounces Reposado Tequila
¾ ounce Marie Brizzard White Creme de Cacao
½ ounce fresh lemon juice
½ ounce fresh orange juice
7 espresso beans
Crack the espresso beans with a muddler in a shaker. Add all the other ingredients. Dry shake for 7 seconds. Add ice and shake for 15 seconds. Fine strain into a cocktail glass.