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Bartender in Residence

Sam Miller Mixes Tiki With a Bigger Mission

June 01, 2021

Story: Chloe Frechette

photo: Kelly Puleio

Bartender in Residence

Sam Miller Mixes Tiki With a Bigger Mission

June 01, 2021

Story: Chloe Frechette

photo: Kelly Puleio

The Pagan Idol bartender and founder of B4 Change has a clean, modern take on tropical cocktails—and a vision for a more equitable industry.

Sam Miller began his hospitality career as a dishwasher more than a decade ago at a Samurai Sam’s, a Japanese chain restaurant outside Salt Lake City. In the years since, he’s bartended across the West, from Park City to Honolulu, San Francisco to Denver, driven by a mission to secure greater representation for BIPOC in the industry.

PUNCH Bartender in Residence Class of 2021Though he was born in Los Angeles, his family later moved to Logan, Utah, where his mother is from. “I heard the joke, ‘You must be the only Black bartender in Utah,’ more times than I can count,” says Miller, who describes multiple occasions in which guests would reach across the bar to touch his hair without asking.

When he was 14, he took his first job in the industry at Samurai Sam’s. From there, he rose through the ranks at a number of other chain establishments including IHOP and Lone Star Steakhouse. Miller landed his first bartending job at Silver Restaurant & Lounge, Park City’s premier cocktail bar. But within months, a more senior bartender took over the program, demoting Miller to barback. “It was such a turning point,” he says. “I was very hurt, but it was kind of my fuel; it really pushed me to learn everything—I started reading cocktail books, I started putting in the work, making flashcards,” says Miller.

He earned back his bar shifts at Silver and eventually moved on to work at Denver’s RiNo Yacht Club, a pivotal experience that introduced him to the tropical and tiki-style cocktails that have since found a permanent home in his repertoire. From there, he traveled to Honolulu, taking a job at Morimoto in 2017. “When I went to Hawaii, I got a pretty good glimpse of both sides of the spectrum of what tiki could be,” says Miller, noting the propensity for high-fructose corn syrup and over-the-top kitsch at a number of tourist destination bars. As a counterpoint, he created drinks that were bursting with fresh ingredients, like his A Gai Khalled Tom, a clarified lemongrass- and ginger-inflected milk punch inspired by the classic Thai dish tom kha gai.

In 2018, Miller moved to San Francisco, a city he had recently visited as a prize for winning a cocktail competition. He landed a job as bar manager for the opening team of Zombie Village, a rum and tiki bar in the city’s Tenderloin neighborhood. Ever since, he’s been pouring his efforts into B4 Change, an advocacy group of BIPOC bartenders he co-founded, aimed at creating a more inclusive, equitable industry. “I want to see more people of color running bar programs and in upper-management positions,” says Miller.Since leaving Zombie Village, he’s currently serving as the general manager of Pagan Idol, a tiki bar where he’s been tasked with training the team for reopening post-COVID.

His organization, which was forced to cancel a number of planned in-person seminars due to the pandemic, has since shifted into immediate community action through recurring clothing drives and the production and distribution of meals, water and hygiene kits in partnership with Feed the People Collective. “We were like, ‘Our biggest asset is time, how can we use our time to help people in need?’” recalls Miller.

The new position at Pagan Idol is a natural fit for Miller, who has a penchant for rum and spirit-forward cocktails. “I start with the spirit and, within the category, find the perfect mark that creates the flavor profile that I’m looking for,” he explains—everything else works to bolster that backbone. In true tiki fashion, the base spirit in question might be a blend of multiple expressions, as is the case in his Three Mile Island, an Old-Fashioned variation centered on a blend of Barbados rum, sweetened with blackstrap molasses syrup.

Here, get to know Sam Miller in three cocktails.

Samson Swizzle
Recipe

Samson Swizzle

An extra tropical spin on the Queen's Park Swizzle.

Three Mile Island Cocktail
Recipe

Three Mile Island

A smoked rum Old-Fashioned variation built on a base of three rums.

Gai Khalled Tom Cocktail
Recipe

A Gai Khalled Tom

The classic Thai dish tom kha gai translated into cocktail form.

The BIR Questionnaire

Your approach to cocktails in one word:

Thoughtful.

Best (and worst) drink you’ve ever had:

Best drink: I don't think there is one drink to rule them all. I’m just looking for a balanced cocktail that my bartender believes in. Worst drink: Harvey Wallbanger; I really can’t stand the Galliano/OJ combo.

Your favorite bar, and why:

RiNo Yacht Club, Denver, Colorado. RYC closed its doors two years ago, but that bar had something very special. I learned something every time I was there. It was fun, thoughtful, a little wild, and full of industry friends.

Your favorite classic cocktail, and why:

The Daiquiri, the holy trinity of rum, lime and sugar. The Daiquiri is the perfect balance of tart and sweet while still letting your spirit shine. I’m a fan of the 2:1:3/4 build because it stands up to the overproof rum that I hope you are using in your Daiq.

Worst drink you’ve ever made:

It’s hard to remember my first year behind the stick, but I know I didn’t understand balance. I’m sure my bartender’s choices back then were less than amazing. Thank you to all my guests who stuck with me through my learning process...

Your go-to dive bar drink order:

Blanco tequila neat and whatever cerveza they have.

The one thing you wish would disappear from drink lists forever:

Artificial flavoring.