When a bartender decides to the leave the game and make their exit from behind the bar, it can be a devastating moment for the cocktail scene—namely, the barflies. Gone are the days of bellying up to the bar and sitting across from your favorite mixologist eager to tempt your taste buds with one of their latest concoctions.
Ryan Seng is one of those local curators of all things spirits who has since vacated his post from behind the bar to pursue other artistic and entrepreneurial adventures. For those missing the pleasure of partaking in one of the artist/bartender’s delightful distillations at local watering holes like Grange Restaurant and Bar and Shady Lady, take solace in knowing that the former bartender has taken his show on the road—well, in the form of a cocktail in a can, that is.
Aptly named Can Can Cocktails, Seng’s new venture continues his tradition of creating cocktails that are both complex yet accessible to all palates, a talent, no doubt, that emerged out of his New York art school background.
“I was like a shitty, little 14-year-old kid getting into a lot trouble,” Seng remarks about his transformation into a serious artist with a chuckle. “And then I got into art, and then I started taking art seriously and I moved out to New York to study painting.”
After completing his studies at the New York Studio School in Manhattan in his twenties, Seng and his wife made their way out to Davis, where he parlayed his experience in the New York restaurant scene and picked up restaurant and bar gigs to pay the bills. Seng was not only able to earn a living for himself and his young family, but he soon soared to the top of the heap of renowned bartenders in the region.
“I feel really lucky that I was able to do well in restaurants so I could support a family,” Seng admits. “I think that was the crazy thing about Can Can Cocktails, there is this funny law in California that you can’t be the owner of an alcohol company and work in the retail sector. So, then I couldn’t bartend anymore, which was crazy because that was my whole livelihood. So, now I’m full time at Can Can Cocktails, which is terrifying and exciting sometimes too.”
Known for creating erotic and lively scenes that evoke the freewheeling and occasionally debauched speakeasy culture, Seng will be showing his latest body of work to land on the canvas at an upcoming show at Sacramento State titled Call Your Corners!
“I used to kind of keep my art and my bartending separate,” Seng explains. “[I was] young and trying to pretend that I was a serious artist who was just bartending, but then I [came] to that point, like, ‘Who cares?’ So I just started mixing the worlds together. A lot of my bar experiences started coming into my painting and then sometimes painting stuff would come into my bar work, like the way I would compose a painting would be like a drink.”
The perfect example of the convergence of the two disciplines in Seng’s world, aside from the Can Can Cocktails project, can be seen at Shady Lady: the artist and entrepreneur’s work graces both the walls and at the bar (Seng collaborated with the master mixologists at the venerable R Street tavern). His grandiose piece, appropriately titled Blind Tiger, harkens back to the days of the speakeasy and serves as one of the main points of interest in the establishment’s lush and sensual design aesthetic.
Now that he has completely dedicated his time and talent to making Can Can Cocktails a legit force in the portable libation sector—and no, we’re not talking those malt beverage selections out on the market—Seng is bringing only the best ingredients and quality spirits to the table.
Of course, building a brand and keeping on top of the supply-and-demand machine is a challenge all on its own; a beast that Seng says is only too happy to slay. And thanks to his background and notoriety in the bar scene, the long days and nights developing a business plan and then setting that plan into motion has been rewarding nonetheless.
Especially when that first can rolled off of the conveyor belt, accompanied by that first glorious hiss from the pull tab releasing the essence of his signature cocktail, the 120, an effervescent concoction that boasts 80-proof premium vodka, raspberry and lemon juice, and mint from Del-Rio Botanical, a local farming outfit that specializes in organically grown fresh and seasonal produce.
“I had so many connections from working in town for so long and people respect me as a bartender, so at least I should give it a try, and that was my goal: it had to be a really, really good drink in a can. It couldn’t be terrible. And that was a really fun challenge, too. Like, how to get that kind of craft into a can, a high-end product with that freshness.”
Gearing up for the Sacramento State show, Seng sees the upcoming exhibition, which opened on Jan. 23, 2017, as an opportunity for his artistic experience to come full circle from setting up provocative and engaging art shows as a young artist upon his relocation to the West Coast to the more studied and academic experience he now finds himself in.
“It’s kind of a funny show for me,” Seng explains. “When I was that shitty 14-year-old, I imagined being an artist and in my brain, I thought that art shows must be fun—like naked people walking around and crazy lights and music and drinks. And then [I found that] the artworld is nothing like that. So I started doing a bunch of art shows like that … we’d call around and do these shows in San Francisco, invite-only, and they were really fun. And now here I am full circle. The CSUS show is pretty academic.”
After being unceremoniously exiled from the bar scene that sparked some of his most creative moments: from creating signature cocktails at Shady Lady to blowing his patron’s minds at Grange, Seng encourages young artists to follow their own unique path—the opportunities are boundless, he reassures.
“When you’re a young art student, you have this idea of what an artist is and what kind of art you should make,” Seng says. “And then you get a little older and you realize it’s really exciting being in a time that nobody has ever been in before, and you’re going to do things you can’t easily define—and then you find yourself starting a canned cocktail company, but you still want to paint. So, use your talents as an artist and creative person to do creative and new crazy things.”
Ryan Seng’s exhibit Call Your Corners! will be on display Jan. 23–Feb. 16, 2017, at the University Union Gallery on the Sac State campus. The reception for the show will be held Thursday, Jan. 26, from 6–8 p,m, Find out more about Seng and Can Can Cocktails at Cancancocktails.com.