Meet Your Mixologist: Zuma’s Theo Von Ungern-Sternberg

By Vanessa Martin

while he doesn’t stick to a particular style or a favored set of ingredients, he admits to making his drinks just the way he likes them — strong.

North Brickell hot spot Zuma is celebrated for its modern Japanese cuisine, but the man behind the bar, mixologist Theo Von Ungern-Sternberg, makes cocktails equally worth boasting about. You’ll likely gravitate toward the sophisticated sake bar and lounge before heading over to the dining room. An import from the restaurant’s London outpost, Von Ungern-Sternberg has only been in Miami just shy of a year, but clearly the Magic City has cast its love spell over him. “I love Miami,” he says. “I told everyone I know they are more than welcome to come and visit, because I’m not going back.”

Von Ungern-Sternberg got his start working five nights a week at a bar in London. What started off as a means of getting himself through college, spontaneously led him to his true passion. At the time, he was pursuing a combined honors of sociology and anthropology, but it’s what he learned behind the bar that mattered most, ultimately landing him a job as senior bartender at Zuma’s London location. Today, he holds an impressive pedigree, including an award for top three of the 2011 UK National Pernod Absinthe Competition and the Snow Leopard Cup in 2008.

As the head honcho behind Zuma Miami’s innovative beverage program, he’s all about moving forward and implementing new styles and techniques. Fusing different ingredients, he likes to bring out new flavors and elements in a cocktail through it’s different layers. High-quality ingredients are key to his craft in making classic cocktails with a contemporary twist. “I’m very fond of vermouths and bitters and anything with a kind of real depth that can work together in a drink to bring out different nuances,” he says. And while he doesn’t stick to a particular style or a favored set of ingredients, he admits to making his drinks just the way he likes them — strong.

Of his latest creations, are Zuma’s new flavored Shochu offerings. Shochu is Japan’s most popular spirit, surpassing that of sake — it’s national drink — over the last seven years. The distilled spirit has won over a legion of fans in London where Roka, Zuma’s sister restaurant, has a bar that focuses on flavored Shochu’s. Theo decided it was high time the U.S. had a taste. He now handcrafts  Shochu infusions using flavors extracted from fruits of his choosing, resulting in a refreshing, ethereal like blend that’s perfect for cooling down on a typically hot Miami day. The shochu flavors will be seasonally influenced — current offerings include green apple, raspberry, or lychee and are served neat, on the rocks, or mixed.

Although Von Ungern-Sternberg holds true to his work ethic, he doesn’t take neither himself nor bartending too seriously. He finds it’s best to steer away from trends and the focus on price tags. “Bartending is fun, it’s what it’s all about,” he says. “It’s about making great drinks, and people having a great time.” Implementing the Zuma ethos of value and quality ingredients, Theo quenches the masses with innovative, high-quality cocktails.