The Road to Nowhere

We’ll be giving out samples of the “Road to Nowhere” at the Birmingham Museum of Art’s Art After Five event on Friday, June 2. The theme for this month’s event is “Road Trip.”

When we think of vacations, we think of rum. To be fair, we think about rum pretty much all the time these days, and especially in summer. The exotic combination of grapefruit, mint, and ginger stirred the old imagination. The tartness of lemon juice tamps down the sweetness. Just get in the car, turn on the radio, and see where it takes us. It doesn’t matter where we are going, and we could just as well be going nowhere.

This cocktail comes with apologies to Bing Crosby and Bob Hope. We couldn’t decide which of the “Road” movies to name it after, so we went with the Talking Heads song instead.

The Road to Nowhere:


Tiki Talk with Joey Schmidt

11169177_10152724406181809_5293717125042818209_nA lot of folks, when they think of tiki, they think of overly sweet drinks served in novelty mugs with over-the-top garnishes. It’s all presentation, you might say, and not really about the drink. That’s not so, according to local tiki expert Joey Schmidt, also known as Joey from Leeds or JFL, who writes the Rated-R Cocktails blog. Tiki, in fact, is tremendously misunderstood and underrated by bartenders who are either too uninformed or too lazy to appreciate its true depth. When tiki is done well, it is as much of an art as any other craft cocktail.

WT: You were talking to me earlier about the five pillars of flavor in a tiki drink. What are those?

JFL: Just like any cocktail, you can break them down into component parts, but in tiki, you don’t necessarily pick out each and every flavor. You pick out a marriage of flavors—a beginning, middle, and end. Take, for example, Planters Punch, which is the building block of tiki drinks and the building block for Daiquiris as well. You have strong, weak, sour, sweet, and there’s a fifth pillar that you don’t see in that rhyme that’s in every article—spice. Spice is what makes it tiki over simply being Caribbean. The key component into making a tiki drink custom—and I think a lot of people have trouble with this—is you have to have all those elements in play, and you have to remember that a tiki drink should be more sour than sweet. It’s okay for it to be balanced, equal parts sour and sweet, but you should definitely not put more sugar in it than you have sour, unless you’re making a Painkiller, which breaks all the rules.

WT: Tiki drinks can often have 10 or 12 ingredients in them.

JFL: You can, but more ingredients doesn’t necessarily the better drink make.

WT: We know it’s a long story, but summarize for us, if you can, the origins of tiki.

JFL: To start off plainly, tiki is an evolved sour. No matter what you might think, a tiki drink has to have some form of citrus juice in it, which technically leaves the Piña Colada out (there are arguments about that).

Tiki started in the 1930s, just after prohibition, and bars were starting to open back up, but most of the bartenders had moved on to other careers or moved to Europe. So you had a lot of bar guides coming out of varied quality. One man, Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt—or, as he later came to be known, Donn Beach—was in California at that point. His granddad ran rum during Prohibition, and he would go on the boat with him. So he got to try the Planters Punch and the Daiquiri and all these drinks from the Caribbean. He had a good knowledge of them, and he had gotten to try all these rums. He had knowledge that a lot of other bartenders didn’t have at that time because the Caribbean was not a big tourist destination then, other than Cuba. It was a dirty place where respectable people didn’t go.

Then, Don had the choice that he could go around the globe or he could go to college. Donn, being the beach bum that he was, went around the world, especially around Asia. So when it came time for him to open a bar, he had a unique idea. It was the law in California then that you had to serve food if you served alcohol. He didn’t know this, so at the last minute, they set up a burner , a wok, and a vent, and he got somebody from Chinatown to cook for him. And so thus we associate Chinese food with tiki drinks.

Eventually, it became big. He married a waitress named Sunny Sund, and she had a mind for business. While Donn was basically an artistic guy who loved making these drinks, she was a business minded woman. They bought a hotel that became Don the Beachcomber, with a gift shop and guest rooms. It blew up big. This was a hotspot for celebrities—Clark Gable, Marlene Dietrich. It was top-hat and tails, black tie. This was the place to be in the ‘30s. Eventually, they got divorced. Sunny Sund got the rights to everything they had, and Donn left for Hawaii, which I assume was just fine for him. He opened places like Colonel Beach’s Plantation Steakhouse, so he got to keep doing his drinks over there. But it was because of him, and his knowledge of rum, and his knowledge of Caribbean drinks that we have tiki drinks.

In Potions of the Caribbean, Jeff Berry talks about how these Caribbean drinks were given a South Seas/Asian/Polynesian theme, when really there are no drinks from that area. The only spirit really is Cava, which is a chewed up root that’s spit back out and buried—not really that appetizing. So most Asian drinks are actually Caribbean drinks, oddly enough.

Then comes Trader Vic. Tiki had started becoming big. Trader Vic was an entrepreneur who was a real go-getter. That man was salty, salty to the core. He sat at Don the Beachcomber’s for a whole week and watched how they mixed drinks, and then he had the idea that “hey, I could do this.” But he had no idea how to make the drinks. So then he goes on a tour of the Caribbean and sits down at a lot of the great bars out there, like the Floradita.

WT: That’s the bar in Havana where Hemingway used to hang out.

JFL: Right. He comes back with the knowledge and puts his own unique spin on it. It’s still tiki, but you can definitely tell a Vic drink from a Donn drink, even though there’s this whole argument over which of them invented the Mai Tai, which I couldn’t care less about. Anyway, this continued on through World War II, and Hawaii becoming a state really gave it a huge boost. I think that the reason it became such a craze over the years is because people were fed up with horrible things, like the Depression and wars and atomic threats, that they just wanted to escape.

WT: Why do we use the word tiki? I know it has to do with the Polynesian theme, but what more can you tell us about that?

JFL: Originally, nobody used the term tiki. They were Polynesian drinks, the drinks you got at a Chinese restaurant, Polynesian Pop, I believe was a term used at some point. But tiki was a word that started to be used in the late ‘90s when tiki started to become a big thing again. And, by the way, I want to make clear that Jeff Berry is the reason why any of us are doing this. Without Berry, there would be a few forgotten Trader Vics and the Mai Tai and not much else. So we can really all thank Jeff for that. But tiki started to come about because in popular culture, like in some Brady Bunch episodes, the word tiki was used to talk about Polynesian idols.

WT: So there’s a nostalgic kitch association.

JFL: And you do see the word tiki in some drink books. Where umbrella drink became the pejorative word for beach drinks in the ‘80s, tiki became a word to separate out the two. They were once called exotic cocktails. One person coined the term tropikal with a k.

WT: Other than Jeff Berry, who are some of the modern writers we should read to learn more about tiki?

JFL: Phoebe Beach, Donn’s widow, put out a book with her new husband based on Donn’s notes. I wouldn’t use it as a Bible, but it’s a great reference if you’ve read Jeff’s books and want to branch out. Great pictures, great anecdotes. But the recipes kind of read like if my mother went through my notes after I died and tried to tell people how I made those drinks. It sort of feels like that. Outside that, Zombie Horde. It’s not a Bible either. There’s good stuff and bad stuff in there. There’s Rated-R Cocktails dot com. I hear that guy’s a sexy man.

Trader Vic wrote a lot of books. A lot of them are out of print. The one that’s out now is called Trader Vic Party something… you can find it on Amazon.

WT: Yeah, I have that book. There are some recipes that are a little questionable—using pre-fab mixes and things like that.

JFL: Vic was big into that, even in the ‘60s. He was one of the fathers of prefab mixes.

WT: Right, he marketed his own Mai Tai mix.

JFL: And Mai Tai blended rum. It’s hard to hate on Vic because I love reading his actual words. I was given a cookbook he wrote in the ‘60s (thanks to Kelsey Crenshaw), and it’s so great to read his writing. It’s so clear that he wrote it. It is so salty and so surly. And he was an experimenter. He would try stuff out, stuff that wouldn’t make it in the restaurant, he’d put it in a book to use as filler. I would definitely say go check out his book, even the Trader Vic Party book because once you’ve seen how some of these drinks come together, you can probably figure out what was in that mix.

Martin Cate from Smuggler’s Cove has done a series of YouTube videos, and one of them actually has Trader Vic’s Navy Grog, which is probably Trader Vic’s greatest creation aside from the Tortuga, in my opinion. This is one Jeff agonized over and couldn’t quite figure out. Martin had a really good version. The Don the Beachcomber version is out there too, and it’s excellent as well, but I think the Trader Vic’s version is better. It’s because of the great fruit allspice.

I would say, aside from reading, go seek out some of these great old tiki bars next time you have a vacation. A lot of them are in wonderful vacation spots: L.A., Fort Lauderdale… You can certainly pick a worse place to go on a trip. Spend a weekend in Fort Lauderdale and go to the Mai Kai. See the Polynesian show. They have fire dancers and everything, and while you’re there, really sit and enjoy the drinks they pour because that is the oldest tiki bar left standing in America, done by a guy who worked for Donn. You’re not going to get any more authentic than that.

Aside from that is Tiki Ti in Los Angeles, which is currently closed indefinitely for restructuring. Every tiki nerd out there is hoping they will get back behind the bar soon. Tiki Ti is a place I would be heartbroken to lose, especially some of those Buhen family recipes that are totally secret. Nobody knows.

Or go to Chicago. There are some newer places like Three Dots and a Dash, which was with Paul McGee, now Lost Lake, which is Martin Cate and Paul McGee. Both places you should check out in Chicago. Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco, Martin Cate, a guy who worked for Trader Vic’s for a long time. Hale Pele in Portland, which is by B. G. Reynolds, who bottles some of his own syrups, if you’re too lazy to make your own syrups. And of course, there’s also Latitude 29 in New Orleans, which is Jeff Berry’s place.

WT: The Zombie is the quintessential tiki drink and the Mai Tai is the most famous, but what is your favorite classic tiki drink?

JFL: My first love was the Donn Beach Dr. Funk. I just love the way the absinthe and grenadine go together. It just makes this great summer refresher, even though it’s a super simple drink. Every time I go to Trader Vic’s, I start out with a Navy Grog. That’s definitely a personal favorite.

WT: What is your favorite original recipe?

JFL: They’re all my children. We recently did one called the Coral Snake.

WT: Right, that’s the one featured in Part 1 of The Whiskey Thief, the Novel.

JFL: That came out really well. Reaching back a little further, the Haunted Hut is one that I keep coming back to. It’s one of my first victories, and it was me getting over my writer’s block, so it’s very close to my heart. We did a Vincent Price drink this past October called Darkness Falls, which I wish everybody would check out. It didn’t get that many hits, but it is a majestic coffee tiki drink.

WT: Well, thanks for talking to us, Joey.

JFL: My pleasure.

The Nitty Gritty Cocktail for May

HerbGardenGimletSince the beginning of this year, the Whiskey Thief has served as the official bartender for the Nitty Gritty Magic City Reading Series, which features a variety of writers both local and from elsewhere on the second Thursday of each month. At each reading, we feature a signature craft cocktail. We’ve been woefully neglectful about pimping both the reading series and the cocktails we’ve been creating for it, but we’re going to correct that now.

This month, we’re doing something a little different. We’re putting together a springy herbal mixture of 2 parts lime juice to 1 part each of Green Chartreuse and St. Germaine. Call it a spring sour mix.

For the cocktail, patrons can choose a base liquor to pair with the mix:

  • Gin for a gimlet
  • Vodka for a bastardized gimlet
  • Honeysuckle Vodka for a sweeter bastardized gimlet
  • Tequila for a margarita
  • Rum for a daiquiri

We’re pulling fresh herbs from the whiskey garden to use as a garnish.

The NGMC readers featured this month are all from Nashville:

TJ Jarrett is a writer and software developer in Nashville, Tennessee. Her recent work has been published or is forthcoming in Poetry, African American Review, Boston Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, Callaloo, DIAGRAM, Third Coast, VQR, West Branch and others.

Christina Stoddard is the author of HIVE, which won the 2015 Brittingham Prize in Poetry (University of Wisconsin Press). Originally from the Pacific Northwest, Christina earned her MFA from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where she was the Fred Chappell Fellow. She is an Associate Editor at Tupelo Quarterly and a Contributing Editor at Cave Wall. Christina currently lives in Nashville, TN where she is the Managing Editor of a scholarly journal in economics and decision theory. Visit her online at and on Twitter at @belles_lettres.

Edgar Kunz lives in Nashville, Tennessee, where he teaches at Vanderbilt University. His work appears or is forthcoming in AGNI, The Missouri Review, Indiana Review, Gulf Coast, Forklift Ohio, Devil’s Lake, and other places. He’s moving to San Francisco in the fall to begin a Wallace Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University.

Black Peppercorn Cocktails

We made a large vat of black peppercorn syrup for our Bengal Tiger a couple of weeks ago, and we still have leftovers. A quick reminder on how to make the syrup:

Mix 1 cup of sugar, 1 cup of water, and 1 tablespoon of black peppercorns in a saucepan. Stir over medium heat until all the sugar dissolves. Turn the heat to low and let it simmer another 5-10 minutes, and then take it off the heat. When the mixture cools, strain out the peppercorns using cheesecloth or a mesh strainer and then bottle.

This syrup makes a wonderful spicy addition to almost any cocktail that would normally include regular simple syrup. We started with the most basic cocktail of them all, the Old Fashioned.

Black Pepper Old FashionedBlack Pepper Old Fashioned

  • 2 ounces of your favorite bourbon or rye
  • 1/2 ounce black peppercorn syrup
  • 2 dashes of Angostura bitters

Build in a rocks glass and fill with ice.

This syrup is especially delicious  if there is also citrus involved. Some things we tried:

Black Pepper Daiquiri

  • 2 ounces white rum
  • 1 ounce fresh pressed lime juice
  • 1/2 ounce black peppercorn syrup

Shake and strain into a cocktail glass.

Black Pepper Gimlet

  • 2 ounces dry gin
  • 1 ounce fresh pressed lime juice
  • 1/2 ounce black peppercorn syrup

Shake and strain into a cocktail glass.

Black Pepper Margarita

  • 2 ounces blue agave tequila
  • 1 ounce fresh pressed lime juice
  • 1/2 ounce Grand Marnier
  • 1/2 ounce black peppercorn syrup

Shake and strain into a cocktail glass.

You can see how versatile this is. Try subbing lemon or lime in any of these drinks. Throw in a splash of fresh grapefruit or orange juice if you have it handy.

Secrets of EveFor our final black pepper trick, may we introduce “Secrets of Eve.” Whiskey Girl and I happen to have a fig tree in our back yard, so it’s a virtual fig-topia around here. We’ve made a lot of cool things with the figs, including entrees, desserts, and drinks. But the majority of the stock has gone into fig preserves, which we make with sugar, lemon, and fresh ginger.

We were snacking on our first jar of fig preserves and quickly came to the end, but there was still a lot of delicious reserve liquid remaining in the jar. What do you suppose we did with that?

Secrets of Eve

  • 2 ounces dry gin
  • 1 ounce fig preserve juice
  • 1/2 ounce black peppercorn syrup

Shake with ice and pour into a large rocks glass. Garnish with a fresh sprig of rosemary.


Switch Hitters

We were reminded at a recent seminar that switching one base liquor for another is one of the oldest bartender tricks in existence. There is often some other tweaking involved besides just making a substitution.

For example, let’s start with a basic Daiquiri: rum + lime + sugar.

Take that recipe and switch brandy for the rum and lemon for the lime. Optionally, add triple sec for extra citrus and sweetness. Also optionally, add sugar to the rim of the glass. Now you have a Sidecar.

Switch out tequila for the brandy and switch the sugar rim for a salt rim. You can use lemon or lime or a combination. Now you have your basic Margarita.

You may not know that several drinks we associate with whiskey today, notably the Sazerac and the Mint Julep, were originally made with brandy or cognac. The switch was made during a period of grape blight when cognac became much harder to get (and subsequently more expensive). Over the past week, we have been enjoying both of those cocktails with brandy as the base liquor, and the result is delicious. One thing to keep in mind, though, is that brandy/cognac is sweeter than bourbon or rye, so you can get away with using a little less sugar.

We like to use Christian Brothers XO brandy or Hennessy VSOP cognac. You might try substituting other fine brandies or eaux de vie in yours and see what you come up with.

julepBrandy Mint Julep

  • Muddle a few leaves of mint with 1/2 ounce of simple syrup in a rocks glass (or make a batch of mint syrup, if you prefer)
  • Add two ounces of brandy/cognac
  • Fill glass with crushed ice.
  • Garnish with a sprig of fresh mint.

In the Wikipedia article on the Manhattan cocktail, there are numerous variations that do little more than switch out the base liquor. Some also switch to a different type of vermouth. For example, if you make a Cuban Manhattan, which subs light rum for the whiskey, you might want to use a dry vermouth instead of sweet. The dry vermouth will help counter the sweetness of the rum, and if you are using a white rum, you will still have a crystal clear cocktail (as long as you stir it; don’t shake!)

Or you could try our variation, which uses Punt e Mes, a sweet vermouth with a kind of bitter edge to it. We also prefer an aged rum like Flor de Cana 4-year. If you are feeling really fancy, use the 12-year.

Cuban Manhattan

  • 2 ounces aged rum
  • 1/2 ounce Punt e Mes
  • Dash of Angostura bitters
  • stir in a mixing glass full of ice to desired level of dilution
  • strain into a coupe glass
  • garnish with lemon peel

The ancestor of the Sidecar and the Margarita–the granddaddy of all “fancy” cocktails–is the Crusta. Though it was originally made with brandy, there was a time around the Civil War era when it was popular with gin. The style of gin you would most likely have found at that time was Old Tom. We recommend buying Ransom’s brand of Old Tom if you can find it. Otherwise, make your own.

CrustaOld Tom Crusta

  • Carve a long spiral of lemon peel, about an inch wide.
  • Cut the lemon in half and rub the rim of a coupe glass with the lemon
  • Rim the glass with sugar (rub the lemon on the glass first, so the sugar will stick)
  • Place the lemon spiral in the middle of the glass.
  • Add the following to a shaker full of ice:
    • 2 ounces of Old Tom gin
    • 1/2 ounce lemon juice (protip: use the same lemon you peeled earlier)
    • 1/2 ounce simple syrup
    • 1/4 ounce Luxardo maraschino liqueur
  • Shake and strain mixture into the glass.






Ginger Bitters Part 2: The Cocktails

Last time, we were telling you about the amazing ginger bitters and bitter ginger liqueur we made. Now it’s time to put these ingredients to work in some interesting cocktails. First of all, the ginger bitters work great in simple drinks like an old fashioned or champagne cocktail. But we made time to try some more complex ideas and came up with a few winners.

Ginger is associated with the Caribbean, and we just knew our bitters would be great in virtually any rum drink. Most rum drinks involve citrus (usually lime juice), and many are sugar bombs. We wanted to get away from those patterns and create something in a little more of a classic, pre-prohibition style.

Ginger Pirate 1The Ginger Pirate

  • 2 ounces of a good aged rum (we used Flor de Caña 12-year. We recommend you use something aged at least 8 years)
  • 1/2 ounce Luxardo maraschino liqueur
  • 1/2 teaspoon absinthe
  • 5-6 strong dashes of the ginger bitters

Add ingredients to a mixing glass filled 3/4 with ice. Stir and then strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a lime twist, because rum and lime really are inseparable.

We also just knew these bitters would go well with bourbon. We chose Maker’s Mark because its sweet, wheat-heavy flavor would counter the ginger spice better than a bourbon that uses rye, which is already spicy itself. We used Sandeman tawny port with this, which is pretty good stuff. We can’t guarantee the same results with a cheaper port like Warre’s, but there’s only a small amount, and it really serves to bind the other flavors together. Just make sure it’s a tawny port and not ruby.

Spring Step 2The Spring in Your Step

  • 2 ounces of Maker’s Mark bourbon
  • 1/4 ounce St. Germain elderflower liqueur
  • 1/4 ounce tawny port
  • 3-4 strong dashes of ginger bitters

Add ingredients to a mixing glass filled 3/4 with ice. Stir and then strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a lemon twist.

Just to shake things up a little bit (that’s some bartender humor for you there), here’s a variation on the classic martini that uses my bitter ginger liqueur.

The Ginger Avenger

  • 2 ounces London dry gin – we used regular Bombay
  • 1/2 ounce bitter ginger liqueur
  • 1/2 ounce Cocchi Americano
  • splash lemon juice

Shake and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a sliver of ginger root.