Cocktail Bars Are Layering Spirits to Create Ultra-Complex New Drinks
Why use one rum when you could use three? Cocktail bars are blending multiple varieties of the same spirit in their signature drinks to achieve more complex and layered flavors.
The best drink I’ve had in recent memory was a riff on the Jungle Bird, the slightly bitter tiki classic. But where you’ll usually taste rich blackstrap rum holding down the bitter, pineapple-sweetened drink, the Pink Flamingo at Over Proof, a seasonally-shifting bar-within-a-bar at San Francisco’s ABV, uses lighter, more herbaceous rhum agricole. And where a glug of Campari usually offers a bittersweet punch, they’ve subbed in a house blend of bittersweet liqueurs. Each aperitivo in the mix adds something new, notes Eric Ochoa, who fine-tuned the recipe.
“The classic bittersweet flavor of Campari, the vanilla flavor of Cappelletti and the real earthy flavor of the Leopold Brothers Aperitivo really come together for a great-tasting blend,” he says.
Ochoa isn’t the only one pouring together a house blend of liqueurs and spirits to use in his cocktails. The latest Blue Ribbon outpost in New York goes through about a liter and a half of their three-rum blend every week. Rumba in Seattle uses a six-rum concoction in tiki drinks and a blend of five rums in daiquiris and mojitos.
“When opening a rum bar, you've gotta have a bangin' daiquiri,” says Rumba’s general manager, Kate Perry, explaining that they couldn’t find a single bottling that gave them the exact flavors they were looking for. She says that “blending crisp, column-stilled rums with some richer and brighter styles” ultimately yielded the daiquiri they’d hoped for.
History inspires the layering of multiple rums—and thus, multiple spirits or liqueurs—in a single cocktail. Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, one of the foremost experts on tiki and exotic cocktail recipes, traced the lineage for me by email: “The originator of this practice—who in 1934 also single-handedly created the tiki bar concept and what we now call ‘tiki drinks’—was Ernest Raymond Beaumont-Gantt, alias Don the Beachcomber, a.k.a. Donn Beach.” Berry explains that Beach was the first to realize that, “as he once put it, ‘what one rum can't give you, three rums can.’”
This meant cutting the heavy molasses notes of dark Jamaican rum with a crisp white Puerto Rican rum and adding complexity with a dash of smoky rum from Guyana.
“The result was a layered, complex flavor that no one rum could approach on its own,” says Berry. This combination starred in Beach’s most famous original drink, the Zombie, offering a spirit base with “three teasingly elusive layers of flavor, as opposed to one.”
Martin Cate, author of Smuggler’s Cove: Exotic Cocktails, Rum, and the Cult of Tiki, tells me that tiki cocktails “were born by making the simple structure of the classic Caribbean Planter’s Punch more complex in every area,” which means multiple types of citrus, multiple sources of sweetness and multiple rums. For example, Cate says, if a recipe started with two ounces of Jamaican pot still rum, “Donn may have thought that all that Jamaican funk overwhelmed the other ingredients.”
Subbing out half the Jamaican rum with oak-tinged aged Cuban rum keeps the alcoholic structure of the drink intact, while tempering the funk. And, as Cate notes, Beach took it even further. “This might extend to three or four rums in a drink, with each rum carefully chosen to highlight specific attributes—oak, body, smokiness, grassiness, etc.,” he says.
This layering was present in even the earliest Donn Beach concoctions. While it might not seem like that bold of a move now, at the time, Cate says, “No one had ever put three gins in a martini.”
As I saw at Over Proof, today’s spirit blends take tiki as their inspiration but often branch out beyond rum. Chicago’s Scofflaw Group layers gin and its ancestors in a riff on the Old Fashioned to represent the history of gin in a single cocktail, as bar director Danny Shapiro explains it. Genever adds a malty note, Old Tom contributes body and Martin Miller’s London Dry pops in bright botanicals.
“Genever influenced Old Tom and Old Tom-influenced London Dry, which is the same progression of the gins' flavors you get in a sip of the cocktail,” says Shapiro.
At Amor Y Amargo in New York’s East Village, Sother Teague makes a blend of eight amari, which he stirs into a uniquely bitter spin on the Sazerac. Teague says the blend offers a balance of “flavors that doesn't exist—or at least we haven't seen them yet.” The drink, rich and complex, isn’t as bitter as you might imagine.
No one is pouring eight different liqueurs one by one into a stirring glass while a customer waits; most bars today will pre-batch a complex mix of spirits to cut down on the number of bottles that need to be picked up to make a drink. But Berry and Cate say that pouring and bottling a mixture of spirits in advance of service probably wasn’t the norm in tiki’s golden era; all the rums were likely added to those drinks one at a time.
“In many states, the law stipulated—as it still does—that a bar or restaurant can only pour a spirit from the bottle it was purchased in,” says Berry, noting that this was meant to prevent unscrupulous bar owners from selling plonk out of bottles with fancy labels.
“That said, I do know for a fact that in the 1960s at least one major nationwide tiki restaurant group did pre-batch their rum combinations for specific drinks that were popular calls,” he says. Did Don the Beachcomber do it, too?
“I don't know,” Berry says, “but I wouldn't be at all surprised.”
And while batching serves to save time and labor, Cate notes that making a signature flavor base helps bars acquire a tricky-to-replicate house style.
The hope is that a customer thinks, "I really like the daiquiri served at Bar X, but I can't figure out their exact rum blend, so why don't we head to Bar X for some daiquiris tonight?”
It worked on me; I’m heading back for another round of Pink Flamingos soon. In case you can’t, the secret mix is all spelled out below.
The Pink Flamingo
This riff on the Jungle Bird was created by Eric Ochoa of ABV / Over Proof in San Francisco.
1 ounce J.M. Rhum Agricole
1 ounce fresh lime juice
1 ounce Small Hand Foods Pineapple Gum Syrup
1 ounce Tiki-Tivo Mix (recipe below)
1 Dash Leopold Brothers Absinthe
Add rhum agricole, lime juice, pineapple gum syrup, Tiki-Tivo and absinthe to a cocktail shaker and fill with ice. Shake vigorously until well chilled. Strain into a chilled coupe glass and serve.
1 part Campari
1 part Cappelletti Aperitivo
1/2 part Leopold Brothers Aperitivo
Mix and keep in a sealed container.