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A Drinking Life

Adam Stemmler.
Courtesy photo.

Adam Stemmler estimates he’s ingested as many as 5,000 different alcoholic beverages. He’s not some sort of experimental alcoholic—it’s all in the line of work. The 28-year-old Stemmler is beverage director at the new Syrah Wine Parlor in San Diego’s downtown Gaslamp Quarter. Booze is his business.

Syrah is a funky, underground wine bar that also serves a full contingent of spirits. But don’t look for mass-marketed brand names on the wine list, or on the liquor shelves. Upscale boutique bottles abound. That’s how Stemmler planned it. With a lot of research, of course.

“Over the course of about eight months, I spent five hours a day, about twice a week, sampling liquors,” says Stemmler, who bears the same glam appearance of another, more mass-media-managed Adam, American Idol runner-up and San Diego’s own Adam Lambert.

On any given sampling day of recent past, Stemmler may have tried out, say, 25 different tequilas. Did he get drunk doing the research? Hell, yeah! “I would start out doing sip-and-spit, but after getting a good idea of what was what, I would have some drinks, sure,” he says. “Hey, I love my job.”

He holds an encyclopedic bank of knowledge of his chosen profession. Stemmler plans to take the sommelier test later this summer. He left me in the dust talking about viticulture and wine theory. When the subject turned to tequila—one of the two “noble spirits”—he focused on Casa Noble Crystal, an organic brand with no sulfites that presents agave in its natural element. For Syrah’s bar he also picked 15 different Scotches, a Japanese whiskey called Yamazake and actor Dan Aykroyd’s Crystal Head Vodka, which has no citric acid and is bottled in a clear-glass skull.

Before his ascent to liquor aficionado, Stemmler lived a fairly gritty existence in the hospitality industry. He was washing dishes at a Little Ceasar’s at 13, and bussing tables at a Chevy’s at 17. He then got a taste of “nice food and legitimate alcohol” working at upscale eateries like Mr. A’s and Mille Fleurs.

He lied about his experience to get a job bartending at former downtown nightspot Aubergine. He made an impression on management with how fast and intensely he tended bar. And after just two-and-a-half years working seven days a week at Aubergine and House of Blues, he’d banked $75,000.

He built up that bankroll by living in a “disgusting” apartment (rent was $375 a month), driving the same old ’91 Volkswagen Jetta—while Aubergine cohorts lived the Beemer and Vegas lifestyle—and forcing himself to spend just $10 a day on food.

“I ate a lot from the Wendy’s one-dollar menu,” he says. “I ate a lot of Top Ramen. Brown rice is really cheap and really filling. And there are soups you can make for about four dollars that last three days.”

When the owners of Aubergine were about to open Firehouse bar/restaurant in Pacific Beach, they let Stemmler in on the investment. He wrote a check for his life savings, leaving him with about $8 to his name. At 26, he was “as excited and as stressed as you can get.”

Syrah and Firehouse co-owner Matt Spencer acknowledges that Stemmler is a seemingly idiosyncratic character, with his tattoos and piercings. “But he’s like an artist when he’s behind the bar—he’s just incredibly knowledgeable about liquor,” he says. “That’s what you want in a bartender, somebody who can tell you about the drinks, not just serve you and leave you. We were impressed with how fast he is and what a high-pouring bartender he is, and we thought having somebody as a partner who had their eyes and ears on ground level was a good idea. And, the fact he was able to save money is something not many people can do.”

The Firehouse investment has paid off for Stemmler. “I’m completely paid back from that, and now I get four checks a month, and I have a place where I can eat and drink for free,” he says. “They say you should take a chance and if you’re going to go broke, do it before you’re 30, you know?”

We can all drink to that.