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Arts and Entertainment Wednesday, Mar. 27, 2019 3 months ago

Sage restaurant's bar is the ideal laboratory for a young mixologist's alchemy

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Inspiration is always the main ingredient of Connor Bert’s cocktail wizardry at Sage.
by: Su Byron Contributor

In the perpetual twilight of Sage’s swanky ground-floor bar, Connor Bert’s hands flash as he creates one of his liquid masterpieces. After pouring rainbow streams in precisely measured quantities, he stirs the concoction with a long glass rod. It looks mysterious, exotic, alluring. What’s the key ingredient?

“Inspiration,” he smiles. “That’s the basis of any great cocktail.”

Bert is the bar manager at the newly opened Sage in downtown Sarasota. That mere job description doesn’t begin to define him. He’s part historian, part artisan and part scientist — and a dedicated connoisseur of the complex world of bespoke cocktails. That’s no overstatement. According to Bert, cocktail artistry knows no boundaries.

Only 27, Bert has trekked the globe to master the art of mixology. He hiked to the Chartreuse monastery near Grenoble in France to study the monks’ mysterious “elixir of long life,” created from plants, herbs and botanicals. He tasted classic and trailblazing liquors and cordials across Europe. He learned from the masters in London, Paris and Florence. At the end of his pilgrimage, he brought back a wealth of knowledge. Today, Bert’s ever-growing library includes dozens and dozens of books on mixology that he meticulously studies.

What first sparked his cocktail curiosity?

For Bert, financial necessity was the mother of his invention.

At 17, Bert was studying acting in New York City. To pay the bills, he found a bartending gig. Along with the money, he fell in love with the art of the cocktail. By 21, Bert realized that mixology offered limitless possibilities for creative expression.

By 23, Bert was invited to serve as a head bartender at the tony SoHo House, where he absorbed the lore of classic cocktails and further honed his craft. For Bert, it was, well, an intoxicating time of life. He’d found his passion.

Whatever happened to the acting career?

Bert, now 27, gestures to the bar behind him — and the rows of 200 bottles gleaming in the soft light.

“This is my stage,” he says with a smile. “Every night, I draw an audience of interesting people. They come to sit back, relax and be entertained. Acting or bartending, it’s still all about creative expression.”

Bert’s cocktail kingdom is an intimate, elegant sanctuary. But it’s also Bert’s lab — where he’s always hard at work on his latest invention.

“I love playing scientist,” he says, pointing to his liquid concoctions. “Every masterpiece that actually works comes after hours of trials and error. It all boils down to the right ingredients in the right proportions. The smallest change can make an amazing difference.”

Behind him, Bert’s carefully chosen ingredients stand at the ready in gleaming glass containers. Not flasks and beakers, but bottles of the good stuff. And every shelf is top shelf.

The ingredients are all here for world-class cocktails. But they don’t mix themselves. And that’s where Bert’s philosophy of mixology comes in.

Some bartenders fastidiously resurrect classic recipes, while others push the envelope with modern ingredients and techniques. Bert’s menu offers a mix of both. He’s a fan of the classics, and he re-creates them the old-fashioned way, with no short cuts. In Bert’s pursuit of authenticity, he’s gathered his own pharmacopoeia of bitters and herbal concoctions. Bert also creates his own syrups, using a sous-vide method to extract a pure, fresh flavor. He uses these to create 20 unique craft cocktails — some of which change on a monthly basis.

Along with curating the cocktail menu, Bert oversees the hiring of the bar staff. What does it take to be great behind the bar? Here again, he has a unique philosophy.

“There are three types of bartenders,” he says. “The ‘mage’ knows everyone’s name and drink. The ‘rock star’ is the fastest with the most showmanship and flair. The ‘mixologist’ is the inventor, who’s constantly pushing the envelope. At Sage, we have all three and a few who are great at everything.”

Now it’s time to taste the wares. Bert shakes up some magic and pours some yellow liquid into a coupe glass. It’s time to taste The Conclusion, one of Sage’s signature cocktails made with Azunia Repo tequila, yellow Chartreuse, orange, lemon, homemade olea saccharum and rhubarb bitters. A tiny yellow flower is pinned to the glass with a miniature clothes pin. Bert explains that this is a Szechuan button (also known as the electric daisy or buzz button) and that it should be bitten into. “You may experience a strange sensation,” he warns.

He’s right. My mouth starts tingling and then goes slightly numb. Bert gestures that I should take a sip of the cocktail. I do and the flavors of the Chartreuse and tequila splash over my tongue. Suddenly, my palate buzzes with a slight electrical current causing the flavors to be more intense, potent. The taste bursts in my mouth like liquid fireworks. 

“How does it taste?” he asks.

“I’ve never tasted anything like it.”

Bert smiles. It’s the smile of an artist who’s created another masterpiece.

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