Hotel bars have always been a staple when it comes to American drinking culture. As a meeting point for area locals and visitors to the community, they have served as a hub for a wide array of social interactions. And what better place to perfect the art of social lubrication à la craft cocktail creations than there? While there might be a large variation in the kind and quality of hotel bar programs, one spot in particular has risen to the top.
This is what leads us to the doorway of Hilton Norfolk - The Main, where we met up with Chief Mixologist Josh Seaburg to learn a little bit about how his work and experience has managed to reshape the Tidewater region's notions of hotel bars and elevate Virginia-made spirits like Belle Isle Moonshine within his cocktail program.
First thing’s first, who are you?
Josh Seaburg, Chief Mixologist for Hilton Norfolk - The Main.
How long have you been bartending?
I’ve been involved with the program here since day 0, I’ve been bartending for 6 years, in the industry for 11.
What first got you behind the bar?
I was a server from the ages of 16 to 21, so as soon as I had an opportunity to do something different, I took it. I started out working at a tequila bar at the oceanfront, and falling in love with Agave spirits kept me behind the bar long term.
Any pro-tips for someone starting out behind the bar?
Learn and master guest service and basic cocktails before you start worrying about making your own bitters, or foraging for wild mushrooms for your dope infusion.
Favorite drink made by someone else?
Maggie Tsouris at Voila here in Norfolk makes the best Aviation I’ve ever had. They’ve been my downfall more than a couple of times.
Favorite drink that you make?
An awesome Pina Colada. It’s to the point now where I’ll occasionally get asked to bring my blender to parties to make them, and I couldn’t be happier about that.
Favorite thing to drink when no one’s looking?
Once in a great while, I’ll make a very time-consuming, ceremonial martini at home, in a wacky ratio of 3.7 to 1. I wind up measuring it with a scale. It’s just so over-the-top and I’m so picky about it that I would only ever do something like that in the privacy of my own home.
If you had to pick one cocktail ingredient to use for the rest of your life, what would you choose
Agave spirits. Tequila and Mezcal are two things I couldn’t live without.
What’s your favorite part about working at your bar?
I like the transient nature of working in a hotel bar. We have our beloved regulars, but the majority of our guest base is only in town for a little while. It’s exciting to turn them on to the fact that there’s a growing cocktail scene in the area, and provide a memorable experience.
Where do you like to stop in for a drink?
I love the atmosphere at Shiptown, a clean-cooking seafood restaurant. It’s super close to my house, the food is amazing, they’re oysters are top notch, and they make a mean martini.
What’s your take on today’s cocktail culture?
On the whole, I’m just really excited that more and more bartenders are understanding that making good drinks is just one part to the equation. Locally, I’m seeing more and more bartenders develop interest in maintaining cost percentages, and taking note of the business side of things, and that’s a must for anyone who wants to advance into management or ownership.
Give us your golden rule when it comes to bar etiquette.
For bartenders, don’t get hung up on what your guest is drinking; it’s such a small part of the equation. Good regulars don’t just walk in and start ordering cool cocktails without developing a relationship, and that’s based much more on service and personality than it is on selling them a craft cocktail when they ordered a vodka cranberry.
What’s your favorite way to drink Belle Isle?
Cold Brew Shots! That, and I really enjoy using the Honey Habanero in a Penicillin variation. The spicy and sweetness play with ginger really nicely.
Why did you want to highlight this cocktail for Virginia Spirits Month?
I like to share cocktails that are quick and easy to do at home. Getting guests excited to go home and recreate something they had at my bar is one of the more rewarding aspects of the job for me.
Combine all ingredients in a tin; add ice, and shake. Strain over fresh ice in a rocks glass, garnish with candied ginger.
- 2 oz. Belle Isle Honey Habanero
- ¾ oz. fresh lemon juice
- ¾ oz. ginger syrup*
- 6 drops Bittermen’s Buckspice Bitters
*Ginger syrup recipe: equal parts sugar, ginger, and hot water by weight, blended and strained
Photos by Joey Wharton Photography