Ask the bartender: what’s your favorite NYC tiki memory?

Tiki pirate gnome outside Apt 13 on the last Tiki Monday held there

Tiki pirate gnome outside Apt 13 on the last Tiki Monday held there

I was asked to write an obituary for NYC’s tiki scene. But I found it alive and kicking, in some unusual spaces. You can read my article on Thrillist (The Rise and Fall (and Rise Again, and Fall Again) of NYC’s Tiki Scene), and I hope you find some new favorite places to indulge in a Mai Tai. I surely had a blast researching it and immersing in NY’s thriving tiki pop-up parties. But my favorite part was reminiscing with the tiki-literati about their experiences, most of which couldn’t fit into the already-dense article, unfortunately. For example, I asked each of the following individuals (admittedly, not all bartenders) for their favorite NYC tiki memories. Here’s what they said:

Mahalo-ween. It was a Halloween event – it was on a Monday that year. We did a Tiki Monday, and it was such a fun event. That’s the one I have the photos for. I had a photographer come in …it was the people who came to it, we had an all-star cast of characters that attended the event. It was awesome and so much fun.” —Julie Reiner, co-owner and beverage director, Clover Club

“If you ask anyone, all the best memories involve Julie and Brian, because that synergy is unique among tiki. I don’t think anyone has the level of collaboration they had on a weekly basis. He would have Damon [Boelte] come in and do a Famous Grouse tiki night. Eight tiki cocktails with a Scotch base is crazy! To have that unique take every week. It was like a family that developed around that event with that amalgam of enthusiasts, casual participants, industry – it became a must-attend kind of thing. Julie’s willingness to let enthusiasts behind the stick – I did two or three Mondays With Miller. It’s extremely nerve-wracking to have Julie as your cocktail waitress!” — Adam Kolesar (“Tiki Adam”) and owner of OrgeatWorks

I don’t have a favorite memory. I’m too concerned that there is no Tiki bar in NYC and when I say that, I’m referring to bars that take the craft of Tiki cocktails seriously – like Three Dots & A Dash and Smuggler’s Cove.” —Brian Miller

My favorite tiki memories would not be from Painkiller, it would be from the Mai Kai in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. That is in my opinion the most sacred manifestation in physical and spiritual essence in America should be. It’s been owned and operated by the same family for the same 50 years and there is not a place in there that does not exude tiki spirit, from the decor, staff, cocktails, nightly performances – every time I go there it prompts lasting memories for me of that genre. Sadly, I can’t really say that my favorite tiki memories took place in the bar formerly known as Painkiller.” —Richie Boccato, proprietor, Dutch Kills

“One of the first bars to have a specialty cocktail menu dedicated to quality classic tiki drinks was Elletaria, a now-defunct Asian-fusion restaurant that was in the West Village.  Before that, we pretty much had to make these drinks (and their component ingredients) at home.  In these earlier years, making drinks at home and then having one specific place to go for the specialty tiki night allowed us to get to know a group of “tiki-regulars”, many of whom continue to be some of our best friends in NYC.   This group has become our NYC “ohana” (or “family”) and we continue to get together to celebrate events, holidays and until recently, Tiki Mondays with Brian Miller.  Aside from seeing our regular group of friends, a big part of what we loved about Brian Miller’s Tiki Mondays was the guest bartenders.  It was always fun and interesting to watch them take on the classic tiki drinks, as well as seeing them invent new drinks, based on the spirit sponsor that week or their own personal preferences.  When Tiki Mondays moved to Mother’s Ruin, there was then a frozen drink machine available, which Brian and the other bartenders were able to employ in very unique ways.  For example, it was a fantastic kitschy idea for them to turn the Jungle Bird, a classic Campari-based tiki drink, into an amazing frozen drink.” –Nicole Desmond, Rhum Rhum Room

“In 2008, 2009, I saw a New York Times article about Jeff Berry. Quote: ‘you can’t get a good Zombie in NY.’ He was talking about Otto’s Shrunken Head. At the time, no tiki bars existed. And places said, let’s do something about that. As soon as I was able to legally go out and drink, I went out to those places (i.e Flatiron Room). When I got back to NY, Lani Kai and PKNY were up. I’m an Angeleno transplant, where we have Tiki Ti and some smaller places. It was great to see the evolution of the people doing this and their bars, and going to the openings of both of those places. Participating in that first Tiki Monday, and the rush of people coming downstairs. That was something I’d been waiting for a good five years to do. And having people love the drinks and having a good time.” —Garret Richard, bartender at Prime Meats, and host/creator of the Brooklyn Luau

All about cocktail ice in Food Arts

It’s amazing enough that the September issue of Food Arts is almost entirely devoted to ice — the best ways to freeze, well, everything; liquid nitrogen cocktail experiments; best blast freezers, etc. Fascinating concept issue, though I was sorry the wine column wasn’t devoted to ice wines.

Ice sphere

Ice sphere

But what amazed me the most was the section on (cocktail) ice and ice machines buried within the “Arctic Arts” feature written by David Arnold and Nils Noren. Bartenders really do take ice seriously. Anyone who’s witnessed the obsessive Japanese art of carving ice into perfect spheres by hand knows what I mean.   

Arnold and Noren point out that bartenders “yearn for what they see as the lost age of great ice,” namely the days when pure, perfectly clear ice was harvested from lakes. (Did you know that Boston was the epicenter of the ice trade? I didn’t, though I’ve been to frosty old Boston in wintertime and I shouldn’t be so surprised.) So since no one harvests lake ice any more (is that a new artisan industry I smell?) here are the main solutions that bartenders use for great ice:

Machines:  namely the Scotsman nugget machine, which bartenders like for particular drinks like cobblers; the Kold-Draft, which makes big, 1 1/4-inch squares that melt relatively slowly; Manitowoc, which apparently is known for its quiet operation; Hoshizaki, which produces a special crescent-shaped ice cube that supposedly minimizes splashing when you pour and creates “superior displacement,” making pours look taller than average; and the Ice-O-Matic, which uses the ingredient ionic silver to inhibit bacteria and slime fungus growth (ick!).

Freeze your own ice. Arnold/Noren note that Sasha Petraske’s joints freeze big ice molds in domestic chest freezers, and use them to carve ice spears and use it for “shaking ice.”

Buy good ice. Apparently Richie Boccato at Dutch Kills rejected ice machines altogether and orders 300 pound blocks of ice, which can be used for about 300 drinks. “There’s always a block on display at their ice carving station, which makes for a great show.” The team there was trained for five months on ice prep techniques prior to opening, and they use Japanese wood saws, upholstery hammers, and ice picks to break them down. Yikes!

Liquid Nitrogen:  Possesses only 15% more cooling power than the same amount of ice. But it freezes quickly and makes smaller ice crystals, which imparts a smoother texture in the frozen substance. (and besides, nitro is just so flash these days…yes, Vegas, I’m lookin’ at you.)

And I can’t resist quoting one last comment from Don Lee of Momofuku:  “If sushi is all about the rice, a drink on the rocks is all about the rock.”

p.s. If you still have an appetite to read more about cocktail ice, this thread over at eGullet is for you.