London bartender Rikki Brodrick spent the better part of last October’s Rumfest UK assembling a cement mixer. The plan was to wheel it onstage to mix the world’s largest Pina Colada, but before that could happen, Rikki had to decode the inscrutable instructions and screw the machine together. When he finally finished, with seconds to spare, there were still two bags of nuts and bolts on the floor. “Wonder what those are for?” he asked. He got his answer on stage, when gallons of coconut milk, pineapple juice, and rum leaked out of the machine in torrents — and audience members rushed the stage with straws in hand, in a valiant effort to keep as much of the drink as possible from staining the carpet. Manchester Tiki bartender Lyndon Higginson displayed a similar talent for construction with the giant Fog Cutter mug he built for Rumfest. “I made the thing so big I couldn’t get it out of my house,” he told us. “I had to remove the door to push it through!”
At least one British attempt at Tiki construction had a happy ending. At Trailer Happiness, Rikki’s Notting Hill bar, a drink of his called the Jack Fashioned — Demerara rum, cigar-infused maple syrup, Benedictine, Angostura bitters — came with a chocolate moai garnish that was a marvel of engineering (pictured above, photo by Rene Van Hoven).
The chocolate put us in mind of Willy Wonka, which put us in mind of Tony Conigliaro. The latter is often compared to the former, and we found out why on our first visit to Tony’s bar, 69 Colebrook Row. Upstairs is a drink lab that rivals Wonka’s factory, with gleaming, whirring machines that can actually remove the alcohol from a spirit, and then put it back again. Another of Tony’s experiments — aging cocktails as you would wine or spirits — yields truly spectacular results. Downstairs in his cozy, convivial saloon, we sampled an El Presidente aged six months, and another aged a full year; after a palate-cleansing house Mojito sorbet, presented on a spoon by courtly Colebrook barman Marcis Dzelzainis, we assayed a one-year Manhattan and a six-year Manhattan. All four barrel-aged drinks tasted as if the individual ingredients had merged on a cellular level, in a kind of reverse mitosis: the aged Manhattan still tasted like a Manhattan and the Presidente like a Presidente, but both cocktails seemed to be composed of a single ur-ingredient — one that sprang whole from Zeus’s thigh, like Dionysis himself — and not a composite blend of vermouth, bitters, and base liquor. On our next visit to 69 Colebrook Row, we fully expect to see Donn Beach conversing with Madame Curie — both reanimated by the newest miracle potion from Tony’s lab (pictured below, with Tony at work).
If 69 Colebrook Row suggests that alchemy is not dead, Kanaloa proves that neither is vaudeville. Theatricality was a hallmark of midcentury Tiki, when sarong-clad Mystery Girls brought smoking Mystery Bowls to customers at the sound of a gong, but Kanaloa barman Dan Redman-Hubley takes the tradition to new heights. When we first met him at Rumfest, he was a reserved, scholarly gentleman in a tweed three-piece suit. But put him behind a Tiki bar, and you understand why his nickname is “Double-Barrel Dan.” Kanaloa is a beautifully appointed, upscale Polynesian palace, but that didn’t stop Dan from morphing into a whirling dervish before our eyes, a manic, volcanic force of nature who vaulted over the bar like an Olympic track star to greet an arriving customer with a kiss on both cheeks and a booming “ELLO DAHLIN’!” Shaking a drink in each hand, flaming a Tiki bowl by literally breathing fire on it, all the while keeping up a non-stop music hall patter, Dan delivered a command performance for the price of a drink. (And a very nice drink it was: the Nui Nui-Ni, Havana Club 7-year rum infused for two weeks with tobacco, mixed with Carpano Antica vermouth and a house “Nui Nui Syrup,” then shaken and strained over an ice ball.)
At the Savoy Hotel’s American Bar, the 1960s soundtrack music didn’t seem ironic at all, given the room’s sleek white-on-white movie set decor. To the themes from The Odd Couple, The Man From Uncle, and Batman (the good one, by Neal Hefti), we soothed our Rumfest hangover with the liquid stylings of mixologists Ladislav Piljar and Erik Lorincz. Particularly helpful was a restorative Erik calls the Officer’s Nitecap (lime, lemon, pimento liqueur, and agave syrup mixed with three rums; pictured above, with Erik).
At Jake Burger’s Portobello Star, we had a hard time picking a drink from the Tiki-tinged menu. Finally we settled on a punch called The Three Toed Sloth. Why? Because it’s called The Three Toed Sloth. Recipe: 50 ml (1 2/3 ounces) bourbon, 20 ml (2/3 ounce) each apple juice and fresh lemon juice, and 10 ml (1/3 ounce) each vanilla liqueur and cinnamon syrup, served over crushed ice in a rocks glass. Garnish with green apple slices, mint sprig, and a pinch of powdered allspice.
If veteran London barman and ex-Soho resident Glenn Hooper invites you on “a quick ten-minute tour of my old neighborhood,” prepare for four hours well-spent. Remember that Goodfellas tracking shot following Ray Liotta and Lorraine Bracco as they enter a nightclub, with obsequious waiters smoothing their way, and a table, chairs, and drinks magically appearing at their approach? That’s pretty much what it’s like entering a Soho bar in the company of Mr. Hooper. The scene was repeated at Bar Floridita, LAB Bar, El Camino, and Casa, where house mixologist Renaud de Bosredon served up his memorable Caribbean Winter Cooler. Recipe: 20 ml (2/3 ounce) sweet vermouth, 1 dash sugar syrup, 2 dashes Angostura bitters, and 45 ml (1 1/2 ounces) each Appleton V/X rum and Renaud’s homemade spice infusion (1 liter of water, half an orange cut into chunks, juice of two lemons, 6 pinches cinnamon, 40 ml ginger syrup and 50 ml honey, all kept refrigerated in a soda siphon). The overall mix is thrown with ice, served in a coupette with an orange peel.
UPDATE: We just learned that Rikki has left Trailer Happiness and Dan has departed Kanaloa. But everything below is status quo: