Saint Patrick may have kicked the snakes out of Ireland, but he couldn’t do anything about the bums. Mr. and Mrs. Bum, that is, who recently sojourned to the Connoisseur’s Club at the Merchant Hotel, a swank five-star hostelry in Belfast. The club is the brainchild of Sean Muldoon and Steven Pattison, who co-host a cocktail lecture series under its auspices.
Northern Ireland is the last place we expected to find an authentic, meticulously prepared 1934 Don The Beachcomber Zombie or 1944 Trader Vic Mai Tai. But find them we did, at the bar of the Merchant (pictured above). “Bar & Potation Manager” Muldoon takes Tiki so seriously that he tracked down an extremely rare vintage bottle of 17-year Wray & Nephew rum — the rum with which Trader Vic originally mixed his Mai Tais — so that patrons can experience the drink as it was meant to be. (Before you order one, you might want to catch yourself a leprechaun: given the value of that bottle, one Mai Tai will cost you around $1,000.)
The Merchant also offers contemporary exotic drinks created by Sean, whose taste for the tropics gave him the notion to put together a Connoisseur’s Club tiki seminar, sponsored by Bacardi and led by your humble Bum.
After our flight, Merchant bartender Ladislav Piljar revived the Beachbum and his better half with two Sean Muldoon originals, the Little Polynesian (lime, Curacao, cane syrup, gold and dark rums, muddled with fresh kumquat; pictured below) and the Sicilian (gin, Campari, Cointreau, grapefruit and lemon muddled with a house-made blood orange jelly, then topped with orange bitters and a splash of seltzer). Both were revelatory. We asked Ladislav if he ever created his own drinks. He answered with his French Sailor, a marvelous mix of rum, lemon, red vermouth, Grand Marnier, grenadine and dashes of Angostura and Amer Picon, topped with champagne and served with a clever “coral crust” rim fashioned from grenadine and sugar.
The French Sailor put the wind back in our sails, enabling us to navigate the Merchant’s dining room — an ornate 1860 hall that formerly housed the Bank Of Ulster. Dinner took longer than expected once we noticed the 37-page beverage menu, or “Essential Drinks Cabinet,” compiled by Steven Pattison. This was not a wine list, but a spirits list. It boasted 54 rums (including a 1950s Cuban Bacardi, at $100 a shot) and 88 whiskeys, 30 of them Irish. This came as a surprise, since only a small handful of Irish whiskeys make their way to the States. We began with a 16-year Bushmills single malt and a pure pot-still Jameson Gold, followed by a peaty Tyrconnell Sherry Cask and a honeyed Connemara Cask Strength; we didn’t even know these bottlings existed, but all stacked up well against our preferred single malt Scotches. Quite an eye-opener (and eye-reddener).
The next evening, a double-decker bus transported 60 attendees to our Tiki seminar, which took place in the Hartly Room of Queen’s University School of Music. As students rehearsed an operetta in the next room, we sang the praises of three 70-year-old drinks by Don The Beachcomber (the Nui Nui, Navy Grog, and Mystery Gardenia) and Trader Vic’s 1948 exercise in high-proof hijinks, the Tortuga. (Recipe: 1/2 ounce each orange, lime, lemon, Curacao, and crème de cacao; 1 ounce each Italian vermouth and Lemon Hart 151-proof Demerara rum; 3/4 ounce 151-proof Bacardi rum; and 1/4 ounce grenadine, shaken and strained into a pilsner glass filled with crushed ice. Garnish with a lime wedge.)
We poured the samples with our usual free hand, creating a bit of anarchy in the U.K. when everyone — feeling no pain and few inhibitions — piled raucously back in the bus to the Merchant, where guest bartender Erik Lorincz (pictured below right), of London’s Connaught Hotel, had more surprises up his gartered sleeves. The Bum was particularly taken with a Lorincz original called the Mulatta Daisy, served with a cacao-powdered rim; the missus cottoned to Erik’s deconstructed Bloody Mary, which he topped with a celery foam.
As the crowd thinned, the plot thickened. Namely, our plot to sample the entire 67-page Merchant cocktail menu. In this we were ably assisted by Jack McGarry, the Merchant bartender on duty that night. Jack found his calling at the ripe old age of 19, inspired by the taste of his first proper Mai Tai. We were inspired by his daringly dry renditions of the Fog Cutter, General Batista, Royal Bermuda Yacht Club cocktail, and an original of Jack’s called the Vava Voom (lime, crème de cacao, apricot brandy, Brugal Añejo rum, Angostura and Fees Old-Fashioned bitters, shaken and strained; repeat until you see Mamie Van Doren and Jayne Mansfield start a pillow fight in front of you).
Since the Merchant has no clock on display, and the Bum long ago pawned his watch, we assumed it was around midnight when we repaired to our room. We turned on the TV to check the time, only to find that most of the channels had signed off. We finally stumbled on a deep-cable news show, which informed us that it was 5:30 AM.
We managed to rouse ourselves by 3:30 that afternoon, but the layout of the Merchant made it impossible for us to obtain breakfast — because in order to get to the dining room, we first had to pass through the bar. Behind the mahogany, waiting for us like a trap-door spider, was day-shift bartender Hayden “Hayds” Lambert. So instead of eggs and coffee, we had a Rum Eggnog and Coffee Cocktail. These were swiftly and expertly mixed by the companionable Hayds, whose tastes lean toward the classics. We know this because he served us a slew of them, including a Maiden’s prayer, Clover Leaf, Satan’s Whiskers and Papa Doble Daiquiri, each one a minor miracle of craftsmanship.
His shift ended at six, but Hayds wasn’t through with us yet. He took us on a pub crawl to the Duke Of York — a veritable museum of whiskey, with a century’s worth of bottles and ads on display — and Muriel’s, where an equally impressive collection of panties and bras hangs from the ceiling. But our favorite stop was the Spaniard, a cozy room with an early 1970s Brit-rock vibe; you’d expect to see members of Slade or Fairport Convention bending an elbow there, but we settled for the signed Ziggy Stardust-era Bowie photo behind the bar, whose proprietor gifted us with a shot of Havana Club Barrel Proof rum. It’s a good thing this buttery, cognacy, 90-proof pour isn’t available Stateside, or to keep ourselves supplied we would long ago have had to take desperate measures — like getting a job. (In our book, measures don’t get more desperate than that.)
We’d arranged to stay in Northern Ireland an extra day, in order to do some sight-seeing. But the passion and creativity of the Merchant bar staff exerted a stronger pull than our tourist brochures, scotching (or, rather, Irishing) our original plan. Although we did see some sights on our last day, they were all from the vantage point of our stools at the Merchant Bar. Instead of Carrickfergus Castle, we toured the unexplored regions of the Merchant’s drink menu with our tour guides Ladislav, Jack, Hayds, and Sean Muldoon himself. Working in shifts, they shook us up two Don The Beachcomber classics from the Grog Log — the Beachcomber’s Punch and Colonel Beach’s Plantation Punch — followed by three of Sean’s own creations, the Kon Tiki Ti-Punch (lime, cane syrup, and Bacardi 8 rum muddled with fresh pineapple and house-made guava jelly; pictured above), the Spiced Rum (orange, lime, crème de cacao, cane and molasses syrups shaken with Foursquare Spiced Rum), and the Moonshine Kate (lemon, honey, and a traditional Irish potato moonshine called Poitin, topped up with local cider).
We were still reeling from these when Ladislav hipped us to the Merchant’s “Ultimate” Dark & Stormy. The standard Dark & Stormy is a two-ingredient clunker that tastes less like a drink than an accident (“Hey, who spilled ginger beer in my rum?”), but the Merchant’s take on the D&S is a vast improvement on the original — a masterly mix of lime, ginger extract, and falernum with 151-proof Goslings rum, soda water and bitters.
More drinks followed, and if they weren’t so good we might have remembered to write down what they were. What we won’t forget is the skill of Sean and his crew, who practiced their art with a dedication that almost made us self-conscious about freeloading all those drinks. Almost.