Seattle has a solid base of top shelf cocktail bars that hold their own with bars in New York, London and San Francisco. The recently opened Elysian Bar aims to join that elite club and based on the people involved, stands a good chance at that. When Seattleites hear Elysian, they think of the Elysian Brewing Company in Capitol Hill, or Elysian Fields by the stadiums, both being what you’d expect from a decent microbrewery. The Elysian Bar in Downtown Seattle is more refined, focusing on good food and a much stronger cocktail program, which I’m all about.
There’s strong connection between The Elysian and Zig Zag Café, although the two are very different. Kacy Fitch and Murray Stenson, formerly of Zig Zag were both working when I visited on a quiet Monday night. Murray needs no introduction, and Kacy runs the bar program. Whereas Zig Zag feels like a small, intimate hole in the wall with a veritable liquor library behind the bar, the Elysian feels like an moderately upscale restaurant. The bar is long and the liquor selection is reasonably large but not overwhelming like at Canon or Zig Zag.
Murray in silhouette
Although I usually go off-menu when drinking at nicer bars, I always make a careful reading of the house cocktails to assess what the bar says about itself. The Elysian’s cocktail menu is similar to Zig Zag’s menu – Lots of spirit-forward, three or four ingredient drinks using upmarket sprits and liqueurs. The complete opposite of those type of drinks is the Planter’s punch, which also appeared on the menu. I’m a big punch fan, but it seemed like an odd inclusion. The Elysian at this point isn’t about house-made infusions, tinctures, syrups and such. Other bars in Seattle such as Liberty and Rob Roy tread that ground.
The Elysian Bar cocktail menu
Besides just checking the place out, the other reason I visited was to catch up with Connor O’Brien who’s also bartending there. Connor was previously the bar manager at Rumba and I spent more than a few nights there wonking out with him about rum and cocktail recipes. The Elysian has a much more diverse palate of spirits to draw upon, so after trying a Crux #2 off the menu I asked Connor to make me something “dark and interesting”. He took a while to survey the bottles, and what he eventually set in front of me is a real winner. He was kind enough to jot down the recipe:
Connor O’Brien’s Mezcal creation
“Experiment # 1 million”
1 3/4 oz Vida mezcal
1/2 oz Bigallet China China
1/2 oz Punt e Mes
1/4 oz dry vermouth
1/3 oz Cherry Heering
The smokiness of the mezcal, the smooth sweetness of the Heering, and the bitters blend together quite well. I’ll be making this myself at home. While I don’t have China China amaro on hand (yet), I do have a bottle of Picon Club that I squirreled back from a trip to Spain a few years back.
Following the mezcal drink, Connor made several more damn tasty drinks, including a five rum punch:
Five Rum Punch
My take: The Elysian Bar is off to a solid start and well worth a visit, especially if you go at a less busy time, sit at the bar, and get to know the excellent bartending staff.
I recently attended a lunch at La Isla restaurant in Seattle hosted by Diplomatico Rum, celebrating the return of Diplomatico’s line of rums to Washington State stores after an absence of several years. Alex Mejido of Domaine Select Wine Estates, a wine and spirit importer led us through tastings of the Anejo, Reserva, and Reserva Exclusiva expressions. Alas, there was no Ambassador to be had that day, but everybody seemed happy with the three we tasted.
Alex started by telling us some backstory on the Diplomatico company. Although I’ve loved the Reserva Exclusiva for years, having been introduced to it by Murray Stenson during his time at Canon, I wasn’t aware that the origin of Diplomatico rum starts with the Seagrams company back in the 1950s. It seems that Seagrams oversaw the creation and owned 51% of what’s now the DUSA distillery in Venezuela to produce a number of spirits, including rum. In the 1990s Seagrams was bought by Diageo and Pernod Ricard, which jointly held the distillery until 2002, when José R. Ballesteros Melendez took control of the distillery. Today, the distillery produces Diplomatico rum, as well as Cacique rum. In addition, it supplies heavy pot still rums for use in the Pampero brand of rum. Alex also mentioned that in addition to molasses, Diplomatico rum also includes what they call “sugar cane honey”. A more accurate term would be concentrated cane juice, i.e. sugar cane juice with all the original sugars intact, but with some of the water removed.
For the Diplomatico brand, the DUSA distillery uses a combination of column and pot still rums. We started with the Anejo which is a blend of pot and column still distillates, aged for four years. Next up was the Reserva with a bit higher percentage of the pot still, and aged for 8 years. Last was the Reserva Exclusiva, which is renowned in rum circles for being very delicious, sippable and sweet, and aged for up to 12 years.
Beyond tasting the rums, I also enjoyed great conversations with people seated next to me. My friend Jason Alexander from Tacoma Cabana was on my left as we continued our ever-present tiki discussion. On my right was Colin Kimball of Small Screen Network, producers of many great cocktail videos by Robert Hess, Jamie Boudreau, and others. Also on my right was Jeff Shilling, Party Chairman of The Cocktail Party, and social media lead at Total Wine. A great lunch, good rum and good conversation. You can’t beat that!
I’m all about categorizing, comparing and putting things into a structured view. It helps me understand more, and it’s easier to add incremental new knowledge as I learn new bits and pieces. The world of spirits gives me plenty of opportunity for practice. One of the more densely populated kingdoms is whiskey. It can be a real challenge trying to keep straight the difference between Scotch Whisky, Irish Whiskey, Bourbon, Rye, single malt, single mash, and on and on and…
Recently Fastcodesign.com did a very detailed infographic on the topic of Whiskey. While it won’t explain the stylistic difference between different brands, it does a nice job of laying out the major categories and sub-categories and mapping them to specific brand families and labels. While a small legend would be helpful and the “leaves” can be small, I think you’d be hard pressed to make a better chart yourself. Check it out:
Grog Flight at Tacoma Cabana – Lots of Tiki Improv there.
I realize that the following may be heretical in Tiki circles. It might go against 80 years of Tiki lore, secret recipe books, and exotic rums as described by Beachbum Berry in his book, Sippin’Safari. The simple truth is that a good tiki drink isn’t hard to improvise if you know the basic pattern and have a reasonable set of ingredients on hand.
Let me be completely clear up front – I’m an avid collector of tiki recipes, and with 50+ different rums and many exotic syrups in my collection, you’d be hard pressed to find a recipe that I couldn’t fashion reasonably well with what I have on hand. I firmly believe that a tiki drink should be as authentic and well constructed as possible and I regularly consult many recipes in my extensive notebook. However, you shouldn’t feel constrained to slavishly implementing existing recipes, or worse, not making a drink at all because you don’t have every ingredient the recipe calls for.
Think of tiki as a rich framework for improvisation – Discovering new flavor combinations that work well together. Using the following guidelines you can easily come up with your creation or a spin on an existing classic.
Matt’s Rules of Tiki
1) Tiki drinks should have rum. The flavor of the rum, not just the alcohol burn, should be easily discernible. If the rest of your ingredients cover up the rum’s true character, you’re doing it wrong. When picking your rum(s), do your best to use something close to the flavor profile, but truthfully you can get great results with a mid-tier rum like these:
2) Tiki drinks have lime juice. You might find a few that use lemon, but without one or the other it’s not really tiki.
3) Tiki drinks may have other fruit juices, but it’s not required. The most common juices found in tiki are pineapple, grapefruit and orange juice. Personally I shy away from OJ in my tiki as it just feels too cliché.
4) Tiki drinks will have one or more sweet, strongly flavored syrups or liqueurs which may or may not be alcoholic. Commonly used syrups include;
Passion fruit syrup
Commonly used sweet liqueurs include:
Orange Liqueur (Triple Sec, Cointreau, Grand Marnier, etc…)
Cherry Liqueur (e.g. Cherry Heering)
Falernum (lime, clove essence – Non-alcoholic versions exists as well)
4) Tiki drinks should not overly sweet. It’s easy to throw a bunch of syrups and sweet liqueurs into a drink and end up with an overly sweet mess with a muddled flavor. Don’t do this.
5) Tiki drinks may use bitter spirits sparingly. Examples include:
Allspice/Pimento dram (Very pungent allspice flavor, not very sweet)
Pernod or other anise flavored spirits
6) Tiki drinks are traditionally served over crushed ice. If you don’t have an ice crusher, use a mallet, a kitchen towel, or whatever gets the job done.
7) An over the top garnish is always a crowd pleaser. Hollow out a pineapple,use it as a mug, and you’re a Tiki god! (Or so the drink recipient believes.)
The key element of creating your own Tiki recipes is balance. You should be able to taste every ingredient to some degree. Don’t cover up the flavor of the rum. Ensure there’s some tartness from the lime juice. Don’t throw so many flavors in that you can’t discern what’s what anymore.
One area where I diverge from accepted tiki wisdom is going with 3 or more rums in a drink. Yes, it sounds awesome (“Four overproof rums – YEAAAH!!!”), but unless you have an amazing palate you’re not going to discern the distinct flavors of each rum. For that reason I tend towards using just one or two rums – A strong Jamaican like Smith & Cross by itself, or in combination with an Agricole style are particular favorites of mine.
Starting from the ingredient palette above, the next part is honing the exact amount of each ingredient. Here’s some suggestions:
Between 2 and 4 ounces of rum, depending on the quantity of other ingredients.
Between .5 and 1 oz of lime juice, depending on how much sweet you add.
If using other fruit juices, an ounce is a good starting point.
Between .5 oz and 1.5 oz of syrup and/or sweet liqueur. If you go with a lot of sweet, bump up the lime juice to compensate.
If using a strong bitter flavor such as allspice dram, go easy on it. I typically use 1/8 to ¼ oz. For angostura bitters, 2-4 dashes is usually plenty.
Using falernum requires thought to maintain balance as there are different falernum styles. Homemade falernum has sugar, but the lime and ginger pull it towards the bitter side in my opinion. Non-alcoholic falernum syrup and Velvet Falernum leans towards the sweet side of things..
Now let’s look at a few cocktail recipes and see if and how they conform to the tiki template:
Trader Vics 1944 Mai Tai
2 oz. 17-year old J. Wray & Nephew Rum
Juice from one fresh lime
1/2 oz. orange curacao
1/4 oz. rock candy syrup
1/2 oz. orgeat syrup
This is classic tiki at its finest, albeit very simple. Note there’s no fruit juice beyond the lime, and no bitter flavor components. There are three sweeteners, but a whole lime provides a lot of tart to compensate. As for the Wray and Nephew 17, good luck finding that. As mentioned earlier, you have a lot of latitude with rums. For a proper Mai Tai I’d sub in another fine Jamaican style rum – The funkier the better.
The “Mai Tai” at nearly any island hotel bar
3 oz Bacardi silver
3 oz OJ
2 oz Grenadine
This is tiki purgatory. No lime juice – What the hell??? Rum with no discernable flavor. No balance. A sugar bomb. The tiki gods will hunt you down if you order this.
1 oz Jamaican rum
0.75 oz gold Puerto Rican rum
0.75 oz Lemon Hart 151
0.5 oz lime juice
0.5 oz grapefruit juice
0.5 oz cinnamon syrup
0.5 oz falernum
Dash Angostura bitters
6 drops Pernod
This is a personal tiki favorite and a great example of my guidelines. It utilizes something from each ingredient category: Plenty of flavorful rum, lime juice, fruit juice, flavored syrups, liqueurs, and multiple bitters.
2 oz rum
1 oz lime juice
1 oz simple syrup
While a delightful drink and a great basis for improvisation, the daiquiri isn’t a tiki drink by most standards. Rum and lime, sure. But no flavored syrups/liqueurs, no other fruit juices, and no bitters. The daiquiri is too simple to be tiki. I call it a “tropical” drink instead.
2 1/2 ounces golden rum
3 ounces pineapple juice
1 ounce coconut cream
The Pina Colada is one of the first drinks I made when I came of age. I genuinely enjoy them, but they’re not tiki by the definition above. There’s no tart citrus of any form. Also, they’re traditionally blended, which goes against the crushed ice guideline. Like the daiquiri, I put this in the tropical category.
Go forth and Improvise!
Starting from the tiki guidelines, it’s fun to try out new things – break a rule or two along the way. One of my favorites is to substitute in mezcal for the rum. Another is to experiment with introducing flavored amaros like Fernet or Campari. Leave comments with your own ideas!
The weather here in Seattle today was outstanding – May 1st and 80+ degrees. It seems like everybody’s out soaking up the weather we don’t normally get till July.
I haven’t been doing a whole lot of original riffing on cocktails lately – mostly sticking to tried and true recipes so I’ve started to get the itch to be creative again. Normally on a beautiful day, tiki or tropical drinks (rum, lime, etc…) are my go-tos. However I’ve had a lot of tiki lately and I do tiki year-round, and I feel a need to break out a bit from my rum-rut. My other fallback for this sort of weather is tequila drinks, e.g. margaritas with a twist, but something in that vein didn’t feel very ambitious. However, I’ve not had much tequila recently so I had a strong preference for using tequila as a base spirit.
As I often do in situations like this, I start mentally scanning my bar ingredients looking for flavor combinations that might pair well. Tequila, like rum, has a natural affinity for lime, but how not to fall into the margarita trap? What about cherry? Cherry and lime go well together, and I have several cherry liqueurs including Cherry Heering in my bar. Thinking through my options, Cherry Marnier seemed more summery to me than the Heering or the exotic liqueur we muled back from a trip to Turkey a few years back.
At this point I had a solid start but felt like it was still a bit too simple. I was also thinking about amaro drinks like the Americano. Cherry and lime are strong flavors, so I need something that could stand up to them, like say… Fernet Branca! In reasonable doses Fernet Branca t gives a nice minty aspect to drinks. I’ve even seen it work well in tiki drinks, thanks to my friend Connor O’Brien during his tenure at Rumba.
Seattle Summer in May
2 oz blanco tequila (I used Cabeza)
1 oz fresh squeeze lime juice
1 oz Cherry Marnier or other cherry liqueur
.25 oz Fernet Branca
.25 oz simple syrup
Combine all ingredients in a Collins style glass. mix well and fill with crushed ice. For garnish I used a lime slice and some mint springs.