Since Ace Frehley sang those immortal words in 1978, Exotica has has been in and out of the New York groove. The lowest blow, of course, was the closing of the storied Trader Vic’s in the Plaza Hotel. Both Stanley Kubrick and Bob Fosse were fans (Fosse took his mistresses there; Kubrick took Arthur C. Clarke), but when Donald Trump bought the Plaza in 1989 he pronounced Vic’s “tacky” and shut it down. More recently, Manhattan Tiki suffered another blow when the Hawaiian-themed Lani Kai bar — home to “Tiki Monday,” Brian Miller’s weekly bacchanal of outstanding rum drinks and uplifting aloha spirit — closed shop in September. Nevertheless, exotic drinks are still alive and well on the island.
For one thing, as of January 7th Tiki Monday has a new home at GoldBar, whose wall of gold-plated skulls should mesh nicely with Brian’s “Tiki Pirate” wardrobe (pictured above). For another, you don’t have to wait till Monday for an artisanal exotic cocktail in New York. You can get one any night of the week at PKNY, Mayahuel, Pegu Club, PDT, or the Experimental Cocktail Club.
Of these, only PKNY is an actual Tiki bar. Granted, the decor — a mashup of Dinkins-era Lower East Side grit and bamboo beach bar — owes more to The Warriors than to Eli Hedly. But the music, at least on the nights DJs Jack Fetterman and Gina Of The Jungle control the playlist, is authentic. So’s the menu, a treasure-trove of old-school Tiki drinks and new-school artisanal craft cocktail twists on the classics. Each is lovingly made from scratch, with no ingredient uninvigorated: the house coconut cream mix, to take one example, was subjected to constant experimentation that dragged on for months — resulting in the only Piña Colada the Beachbum (who normally hates Piña Coladas even more than he hates that song about them) has ever ordered twice.
After following these with a Nui Nui, Jet Pilot, and Jungle Bird (all from the Beachbum Berry books, and all improved by canny rum substitutions) the Bum slurred his compliments to PKNY barman Valentin Gonzalez. A word of advice: don’t over-compliment Val or he’s likely to lift you off the floor in one of his signature bear hugs. When the Bum’s feet again touched terra firma, Val confided that not every PKNY drink is the result of a long gestation period. Some hatch spontaneously: “One night a drunk lady came in and said, ‘I wanna Piña Colada and a Mai Tai. But I want it together.’ We put them both in the same glass, and it actually worked. So we called it the Happy Ending.”
Curious about where else in town we could find a good exotic, we enlisted our local spirit guides, Martin Doudoroff and Sandy Rosin. They marched us to Mayahuel, Phil Ward’s catedral of agave-based cocktails. The downstairs bar is beautifully and elegantly themed, with late 19th-century Mexican decor accented by chiaroscuro lighting that would do Zurbaran proud (try to score a seat here rather than the upstairs dining room, which lacks the dreamlike atmosphere of the lower level). Naturally our first drink choice was the On The Bum, an intriguing mix of pineapple-infused mescal, Jamaican rum, lime, orgeat, and Phil’s “Medley #2” spiced syrup; next came a revelatory Smoked Pisco Sour, followed by the imaginative and transformative Change Agent (sotol blanco, granny apple, ginger, lime, and salt).
After Mayahuel we hit the Experimental Cocktail Club, whose host CoCo Prochorowski (imported from Stagger Lee in Berlin, where he’d seriously juleped the Bum two years ago) recommended an ECC specialty called the Kinkakuji, by Nicolas DeSoto. It was as good as it was complicated — and it was very complicated, incorporating Japanese whiskey, Trinidad rum, Batavia arrack, clarified milk, coconut water, green tea, and a house mix of eight Asian spices.
Audrey Saunders’s venerable Pegu Club (a proving ground for many now prominent NYC bartenders) has also gone exotic of late, offering drinks to match its decor, which recalls Burma under the British Raj. Pegu bartist Kenta Goto combines lemon, cucumber, apple, and artichoke-infused gin into his Cucumber Apple Fizz; we also enjoyed a Honeydew Daiquiri co-created by Kenta and his fellow Pegu mixologist Raul Flores (rum, lime, lemon, melon nectar, and absinthe).
We’ve covered Please Don’t Tell elsewhere in these pages, but that was before John deBary hired on there. John’s done something that would have been unthinkable in haute Manhattan speakeasies like PDT even a short time ago: put a blue drink on the menu. A tasty one, too, as befits PDT. The Shark (pictured above) compounds butter-infused Nicaraguan rum, Jamaican overproof rum, Frangelico, blue curacao, lemon, pineapple, cream, and Bittermens Elemakule Tiki Bitters — and comes complete with a paper parasol garnish.
We also noticed paper parasols as far afield as the Hurricane Club on Park Avenue and Otto’s Shrunken Head in the East Village. Apparently what goes around does indeed come around: the umbrella drink is back … if not in the mainstream, at least in the New York groove.