Recently the Beachbum was in New York giving a presentation to Gotham bar owners and tenders, in which he stumped for the return of Tiki drinks to Manhattan (Robert Simonson recounts the event here, in his blog Off The Presses). Turns out we were preaching to the choir: Exotic cocktails are alive and well in New York, as evidenced by every bar we visited.
Granted, we had wise counsel about where to go. Martin Doudoroff of cocktaildb.com played Virgil to our dipsomaniac Dante, guiding us through downtown’s alcoholic underworld. First stop: Flatiron Lounge, an Art Deco homage to the 1920s of Fitzgerald and Ellington. It’s the kind of place where you feel compelled to order a drink that goes with the decor, say, a Gibson. But instead Martin asked bartender Adam Ramsey, “What Tiki drinks do you have?” The Bum winced. In serious cocktail bars this question invariably brings uncomprehending stares, often followed by forcible ejection. After a pause, during which the Bum grabbed his coat and prepared for the old heave-ho, Adam answered laconically, “Well, as a matter of fact, I was just in the back playing around with Don’s Mix…”
If the Bum wasn’t already poised to leave his seat, he would have fallen off it. Don’s Mix was the secret grapefruit-cinnamon combination used in the 1930s by Don The Beachcomber; lost to time, the formula was rediscovered and decoded by your humble Bum in his book Sippin’ Safari, which Adam had obviously read. He fixed us a tall, tasty punch using the mix and three different rums. The cocktail menu offered more exotica, in the form of the Pearable. Created by Flatiron owner Julie Reiner, the drink blends Jamaican rum with pear puree, lime juice, demerara syrup, and a kaffir lime leaf — a lovely, layered combination, delicately balanced (if you left out that leaf, its absence would be keenly felt).
Our next stop was PDT (pictured above), short for Please Don’t Tell, a modern-day speakeasy hidden behind an East Village hot dog shop. To get to PDT, you enter a phone booth inside the doggery, pick up the receiver, and request an audience. The booth’s back wall opens to admit you, a la Get Smart. No cone of silence descended when we entered, nor was Agent 13 hiding inside the taxidermy elk head. But we were greeted by the Chief — PDT’s general manager, Jim Meehan, a courtly gent and a gracious host (Jim’s the one who organized our above-mentioned Tiki talk, which he held at PDT, footing the bill for a boat-load of drink samples).
Jim is no longer content merely balancing elements of sweet and sour, floral and spice in his cocktails. “My new interest,” he told the Bum, “is incorporating smoke.” He set us up with his latest creation, the Mezcal Mule, which gets its smokiness from mezcal — a base spirit normally considered too base to mix with, unless you’re mixing it with a knife fight in a border town. But the Mezcal Mule is a bedazzling blend that literally sends cocktail orthodoxy up in smoke. Recipe: Muddle three cucumber slices, then shake with 1 1/2 ounces Sombra mezcal, 3/4 ounce each fresh lime juice and passion fruit puree, and 1 ounce house-made ginger beer (PDT’s is non-carbonated). Strain into a rocks glass filled with fresh ice, add a pinch of ground chili, and garnish with a piece of candied ginger speared to a slice of cucumber.
PDT’s Daniel Eun also had a non-rum exotic up his gartered sleeves. His Blackbeard Punch combined gin and aquavit with lime, pineapple, and agave nectar — another unexpected mix, and a delicious one.
Our next stop was Yerba Buena, where mixologist Artemio Vasquez upped the exotic ante by serving his Boludo Yerba Mate in a hand-carved mate gourd mounted on a wire stand — the South American equivalent of a Tiki mug. The drink itself (pisco infused with yerba mate tea, shaken with fresh lemon juice, grapefruit, and a lime cordial) was tart and tangy, a perfect lead-in to Artemio’s Jamaica 107 (lemon, egg white, and wheat whiskey infused with hibiscus tea).
Maybe because our crawl had been joined by downtown DJ Jack Fetterman, we got to thinking how the drinks at PDT and Yerba Buena felt not so much mixed as orchestrated, like liquid musical numbers arranged by exotica musicians. The work of Jim Meehan, with its elegant precision offset by daringly eccentric accents, put us in mind of Esquivel and Enoch Light; Artemio Vasquez, a modernist riffing on classic Latin American standards, summoned the ghost of Les Baxter.
The beat went on at Death & Company (above), whose bartists made drinks with the bongo fury of Chaino, backed by the Continental Cousins. Their persuasively percussive set opened with head bartender Brian Miller’s pitch-perfect cover version of Don Beach’s 1934 Zombie. “Donn is the one I would most like to emulate,” Brian told the Bum, “not only in the Tiki world but the entire cocktail world as well.” We believed him when we took a gander at his Tiki-shaped muddler, which he’d had custom-made by a carver on Maui.
Brian’s next number was a tribute to Donn called the Gantt’s Tomb (a play on the Beachcomber’s real name, Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt). We were still reeling from this anarchic blend of 151-proof rum, 100-proof rye, lemon, orange, pineapple and allspice, when Brian and his cohort Joaquin Simo hit us with a succession of equally striking original exotics, beginning with a Drunken Dodo and ending with Joaquin’s Deconstructed Piña Colada (recipe: shake and strain 2 ounces of pineapple-infused Flor de Caña rum, 1 1/2 ounces coconut water, a dash of Angostura, and a teaspoon each demerara sugar syrup and Kalani coconut liqueur).
When Brian presented us with an improvisation entitled The Beachbum Reviver (2 ounces Zacapa and 3/4 ounce Santa Teresa rums, shaken with 3/4 ounce Carpano Antica vermouth and a dash of mole bitters), we were jolted into remembering that we still had one more stop to make on our exotic cocktail crawl.
Earlier Martin had informed us that our three musicians of the mahogany — Meehan, Vasquez, and Miller — had all trained at the same conservatory, the Pegu Club, under the same maestro, Pegu owner Audrey Saunders. We couldn’t leave New York without paying a visit … but our legs had other ideas, buckling under us as soon as we hit the sidewalk.
As it turned out, The Beachbum Reviver was more of a Beachbum Retirer. Hugging the nearest lamp post, we regretfully called it a night. In the words of that sage New Yorker, Yogi Berra, “Even Napoleon had his Watergate.”