Interview: bartender Chris Milligan (Secreto Bar)

Bartender Santa Fe

It’s natural to focus on the vibrant cocktail cultures in big cities like New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles, but there are also noteworthy bartenders on the fringes. For example, Chris Milligan was born in Tennessee, grew up in south Georgia and started bartending in Carrollton before heading west to Santa Fe. That was about 20 years ago, and ever since his move, Milligan has continued to hone his craft. He also maintains a bartending blog called The Santa Fe Barman. We met at Secreto Lounge in Santa Fe in July and recently caught up by phone, where Milligan shared insights about his background and approach.

Do you consider yourself a bartender or mixologist?

Really both. I think they’re two different things. A bartender works in a bar, handles customer service and makes drinks for people. A mixologist is someone who does a lot of work and does a lot of study to craft cocktails, the history and science of why things happen the way they happen.

Did you become interested in cocktails or spirits first?

Probably cocktails. I started tending bar when I was working my way though college. I got more interested in cocktails before I really started delving into spirits.

What was your first cocktail related job?

I was waiting tables and started doing catering bar jobs for the restaurant I was working for. That was at the Lazy Donkey in Carrollton, Georgia, at the University of West Georgia. I asked the owner several times over seven years if they would tell me why they came up with the name, and the only thing they’d ever say was that it was an old barroom story, as their faces turned red.

What was your major in college?

I majored in psychology.

How do you think that helps you as a bartender?

Being able to talk to people, listen to people and hear what they’re asking for, not just in a drink, but in an experience, I think my degree really helps to enhance that. Everybody loves a bartender who will listen to them.

Do you have a first cocktail memory?

The first time I started trying to learn how to make martinis with the first real delve into cocktails. It was a college bar and this was back in the ’80s, so it was sickening sweet X-rated drinks that people ordered back then. When somebody came in and ordered a martini, that’s when I started to think about what I was doing as something serious.

What is it that inspires you about cocktails?

Besides for my love for flavor, when I first worked in the restaurant business, I really enjoyed the creativity and putting things together. As I moved out of the kitchen, and started waiting tables, I realized I had a knack with customer service and taking care of people. Behind the bar, I found both in the same spot, and I haven’t looked back since. It’s been a fantastic ride for 20 years.

Where are you from, and what brought you to Santa Fe?

I started coming out here on family vacations and backpacking trips when I was a kid, and I fell in love with the Southwest, and the first chance I got when I finished college, I moved out here.

What distinguishes your bartending style from other bartenders?

My style is fun but very professional. I like to keep people excited and interested. I like to teach a little history about drinks while I’m making them. I’m talking to people, sharing cute little stories about the history of drinks and maybe what was going on when a cocktail was created. I like to talk about drinks and get people into a world that at one time was very prestigious but got lost. It’s now finding a place again that’s getting respect, a cocktail being more than just getting something to quench your thirst. It’s an experience.

Would you say that you have any cocktail mentors?

A few. The first person I worked with, Jeff Ferris, had been a bartender for 10 years. He was the first person to take me under his wing and show me the basics of mixing drinks and how to be a bartender and not just a waiter who was pouring drinks. From there, I’ve always lived in smaller towns. Santa Fe is a relatively small town. I’ve never had a chance to work with any of the big names, but when the internet came around, I got to communicate with different people and learn a lot about the art of tending bar and the craft of mixology: Robert Hess and Cheryl Charming, I have communicated with for 15 years via the internet. That whole community has been very open in pushing learning and moving things forward. Angus Winchester and Adam Elmegirab, who has Boker’s Bitters, were also part of that group.

Who are some other bartenders who you respect?

I’m a big of Eben Freeman’s work. Dale DeGroff of course. Simon Difford. Darcy O’Neil. Natalie Bovis.

Where does blogging fit in with bartending?

I started The Santa Fe Barman blog when I was working in a bar that really focused on wine. I was looking for a creative outlet to talk about drinks and cocktails because it was not happening in that particular place where I was working. I started the blog, it’s just shy of two years old and has really taken off. It gives me an outlet to talk about what I do behind the bar on a larger scale, crafting cocktails, making all my own spirits and cordials.

Cocktail Santa Fe
What’s the most recent cocktail you developed, and what was your approach?

The Basilica, and it was done in honor of Santa Fe’s 400th birthday. It’s fresh basil, fresh lemon juice, cane syrup, Beefeater 24, elderflower liqueur, Peychaud and orange bitters. It was a nice light cocktail. The bar I work in focuses on farm fresh ingredients, and this particular drink exemplifies that kind of approach to drink.

Where do you like to drink when you’re not at Secreto Bar?

The Anasazi hotel is one of my favorites, as well as Plaza Real, here in Santa Fe. The Anasazi is a very classic upscale bar with a fantastic bar team. I really appreciate the people who work there as well as the quality of drinks that they make. At Plaza Real, Alex Velez just moved here from Vegas and also likes to work with farm fresh ingredients, but is alaso very much into molecular mixology. It’s nice to also have that element in town.

What’s a great simple cocktail for people to make at home, and what’s the recipe?

One of the best ones for home is something like a Gimlet. It’s an easy drink to make and enjoy. Quite simply, 2 ounces of good gin with three-quarters of an ounce of homemade lime cordial or if you want to do it simpler, Rose’s sweetened lime juice.

Any gin in particular?

I’m a big fan of Beefeater. It’s always been a classic good style gin at an affordable price, and I’m a particular fan of a new one they’ve been doing called Beefeater 24. The flavors are just absolutely fantastic, made with Sencha tea as a primary ingredient as opposed to an overly heavy juniper gin. It lends itself to a deeper flavor and is more versatile.

If you could only drink one more cocktail, what would be in that glass?

It would be straight bourbon. Booker Noe’s.

How come?

That was the first bourbon that I ever really tried, right when I started tending bar. My uncle looks at me, I was 22 years old, and says, “So you’re tending bar now. Have you heard of Booker’s?” He produced a bottle from the trunk of his car and gave me a taste. It was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever tasted. This was when I got serious about spirits and about bourbon.


Joshua Lurie

Joshua Lurie founded FoodGPS in 2005. Read about him here.

Leave a Comment