“There is nothing which has yet been contrived by man by which so much happiness is produced as by a good tavern,” wrote Samuel Johnson over two centuries ago. A recent trip to Dr. Johnson’s home port suggests that if he were alive today, he’d be wearing an aloha shirt: London now has more good taverns than ever, and many of them are serving Tiki drinks.
The reason for our visit was the U.K. Rumfest, an annual convention bringing together rum distillers and rum drinkers. It’s a tropaholic’s dream come true: entertainment imported from Trinidad, seminars by rum raconteurs like Angus Winchester, and free samples of brands unavailable stateside — including a gold rum from Mauritius, and a Cayman Islands rum aged 20 feet under the sea (the motion of waves on the barrels is said to abet maturation). We were particularly impressed with a hearty Demerara called Skipper Rum, a luscious white Jamaican from the new Smatt’s label, and dazzling limited-edition agricoles from Rhum J.M. and Clement.
But Rumfest’s highlight had to be the Tiki Face-Off, a contest pitting London’s Tiki bartenders against Manchester’s. London started strong: carnival dancers shimmied onstage bearing a giant cocktail glass full of macerated fruits, which the bartenders set aflame and stirred into a vat holding the world’s largest colada. Not to be outdone, Manchester entered the arena carrying a coffin, out of which popped a go-go dancer in zombie makeup, holding a bottle of rum in each hand — which she poured into the mouths of the audience as the team converted her coffin into a punchbowl, filling it with ice, rum, fruit juices and Pernod, topped up with an entire bottle of orange bitters. The judges (including Chester Browne of Mount Gay rum, Peter Holland of The Floating Rum Shack, and yours truly) all agreed that it was bound to taste horrible, but the finished coffin cooler actually balanced out quite nicely.
The trophy went to Manchester, and the Bum went to seed. Our bender began at Cotton’s Rum Shack, owned by Ian Burrell (pictured above). They call Ian “The Rum Ambassador” for good reason: not only does his restaurant stock a dizzying array of rums (250 at last count), he also produces Rumfest. He produces festive cocktails too. Witness the Beachbum’s Arrival, which Ian improvised from scratch when the Bum shouldered his way through Cotton’s packed bar. Recipe: In a shaker pour 25 ml (5/6 ounce) each gold Damoiseau rum, Bacardi 8 rum, Wray & Nephew Overproof rum, and fresh lime juice; 50 ml (1 2/3 ounces) lychee juice; 12.5 ml (a hair under 1/2 ounce) coconut rum; and 10 ml (1/3 ounce) orgeat syrup. Ice, shake, and strain into a Tiki mug filled with fresh ice, then garnish with a flaming slice of fresh pineapple dredged in brown sugar.
The caramelized pineapple is the coup de grâce: the best garnishes aren’t just for show; they’re ingredients that add an extra layer of flavor and aroma, “finishing” the drink. (We certainly finished ours quickly enough.)
Our next stop was the luxe Mahiki nightclub. A throwback to the glamorous beginnings of Tiki, when Marlene Dietrich frequented Don The Beachcomber’s and Queen Elizabeth dined at Trader Vic’s, Mahiki is catnip for London’s paparazzi: Madonna, Paris Hilton, and the Royal Family are regulars (Prince Harry reportedly ran up a £22,000 tab in one night). But proprietor “Papa Jules” Gualdoni is the perfect host whether you’re a prince or a pauper.
He also understands the concept of the cocktail as conversation piece: the Bum sampled drinks served in a treasure chest, a deep-sea diver’s helmet, a flaming volcano bowl, and a frozen pineapple. Ian Williams, Rumfest attendee and author of Rum: A Social and Sociable History of the Real Spirit of 1776, was not amused. “Grown people do not drink out of pineapples,” he announced in no uncertain terms. Heeding Ian’s words, the Bum ordered his next drink served in a mug shaped like a monkey’s head.
Mahiki’s drinking vessels — and its interior (pictured above) — were designed by the Bosko of Blighty, Jamie “Cheeky Tiki” Wilson, whose work references Witco and other high-style midcentury exotica designers. Jamie recently outfitted three other nouveau Tiki bars, Kukui in Oxford and Sugar Cane and Kanaloa in London. How to account for England’s Polynesiaphilia? “We’re an island people too,” suggests Pocketiki magazine publisher Trader Jim.
A few blocks from Mahiki, at Mark’s Bar below Hix Restaurant, we found still more exotic drinks — and still more Rumfest attendees, And A Bottle Of Rum: A History Of The New World In Ten Cocktails author Wayne Curtis and his wife Louise. Bar-hopping with Mr. and Mrs. Curtis is highly recommended, because their mere presence beside you guarantees you will be served A-game cocktails. Even before Wayne had fully seated himself at Mark’s, the bartender was upon him. “I read your book,” he said, admiringly but not obsequiously, demonstrating a sense of proportion that carried over into the drinks he began swiftly slinging our way.
Among these was a heavenly Rum Shrubb (you’d never guess that scalded milk was an ingredient) and a gonzo masterpiece called Guy’s Punch (pineapple-infused Demerara rum, brandy, spiced sugar syrup, lemon sherbet, and Guy knows what else). These drinks were originated by head mixologist Nick Strangeway, but bar manager Ladislav Piljar also proved himself a formidable alchemist with his Mark’s Mansion — an empyrean punch that he contrived for us on the spur of the moment, like a liquid jazz improvisation, out of rose hips syrup, saffron gin, Somerset cherry-infused gin, dry vermouth, lemon juice, green tea, and soda.
After conspicuously consuming most of the drinks on Mark’s menu, the Bum’s waistline felt like it had grown double-wide. Appropriately enough, since his next stop was Trailer Happiness. With its Tretchikoff prints hung on wood-paneled walls, op-art fabrics, and white Naugahyde chairs, Rikki Brodrick’s Notting Hill lounge (pictured above) looks like a mashup of a 1959 Butlins holiday camp, a 1968 Modesty Blaise comic strip, and a 1972 Radley Metzger porn set. In other words, our dream Airstream.
As if that weren’t enough, Rikki and his assistant bar manager, a jovial fellow by the name of Jacques James Marcel Bernard Wynn-Williams, make Tiki drinks. Good ones. A flaming Tropical Itch particularly impressed, as did a Dry Daiquiri that goosed the usual lime, sugar, and rum formula with Campari and passion fruit. Add to this finger food like hoisin duck mini-wraps, smoked salmon with sour cream and caviar, and classic British bangers, and you couldn’t pry us out of the place with a crowbar. But Mike Streeter of Rum Connection managed to remove us non-violently, with news of yet another bar serving Tiki drinks — right around the corner.
That bar was Portobello Star, proprietor Jake Burger’s valentine to past masters like Jerry Thomas — Burger makes his own Boker’s bitters so that he can serve Thomas’s 1887 Brandy Crusta — and Don The Beachcomber, whose Zombie and Missionary’s Downfall also adorn the erudite, historically scrupulous menu. Soon after ordering, the Bum was chatted up by a pretty (and pretty drunk) girl in a pink party dress. Then his Missionary’s Downfall arrived, in a tulip glass with an orchid garnish. “Oh,” she said, “I didn’t realize you were gay.”
“My drink is gay?” asked the Bum. “That,” she answered, “and your facial hair.”
Curiosity got the better of us: “What’s gayer, the beard or the drink?”
No wonder Mrs. Bum insisted we grow it.