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Ever since the concept was born in 1934 —when Ernest Gantt opened Don the Beachcomber in Los Angeles—tiki bars have always been a West Coast thing. Sure, there’s a tiki room or two in most major cities, but even the ones in a cocktail kingdom like New York have been awful, serving unbalanced, high-octane bastardizations of the Mai Tai and the Zombie—jungle juice garnished with a paper umbrella, essentially—to frat brothers who wouldn’t know grog if it were dumped over their heads. But recently, some of New York’s top cocktail carpenters—at bars like PDT, Death & Co. and the Krader-endorsed Rusty Knot—have begun honoring the tiki gods with their own Polynesian potables. Last night I attended a tiki-themed party hosted by the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States at Oser Bikini Bar, an appointment-only shop in Tribeca that sells custom-made surfboards, bespoke swimsuits and vintage tiki tchotchkes and furniture.
However, a couple of weeks back, the burgeoning trend almost had its torch blown out. I received a phone call from Eric Seed, an importer of esoteric and long-lost spirits (see our January 2008 issue or click here). He was trying to track down a bottle of Velvet Falernum for Elettaria, a new restaurant/bar in the West Village, and wondered if I wouldn’t have an extra bottle around my office (I didn’t, having just depleted my supply on one of these). A sweet almond- and lime-flavored liqueur from Barbados, Velvet Falernum is an essential ingredient in tiki drinks like the iconic Zombie Punch (limit one per customer, thanks to its deceptively high alcohol content), which Elettaria bartender Brian Miller had added to the list, in addition to a few other tiki-lounge classics. Anticipating this trend, Seed had just signed on to be the liqueur’s new importer, but his first shipment had yet to arrive. After calling every liqueur store in town, Miller found a few bottles at Morrell & Company and bought their entire stock—just in time for opening night.