At the Bar with Seattle’s Tiki Warrior Justin Wojslaw

Justin Wojslaw, Diller Room, Seattle

The Tiki revival movement is clearly having its moment these days, having been heralded in dozens of articles to that effect. Even an old standby like The Washington Post has gotten into the act, running stories about Jeff “Beachbum” Berry and how to make your own orgeat. This is indisputably a good thing for people like yours truly who enjoy a balanced, expertly crafted tropical libation rather than a quart of fruit punch with cheap white rum thrown in. The elaborately constructed rum rhapsodies of the 1940 and 1950s took a serious dive downward for the following fifty years, picking up bad habits like flavored vodka and powdered drink mixes. By the start of the 21st century, Tiki was just about left for dead, consumed ironically if at all. Fortunately, the rise of the craft cocktail movement swept Tiki into its whirlwind of vintage recipes and ingredients. A decade or so later, dedicated Tiki-centric bars are popping up all over the world and modern Tiki recipes are just as easy to find as the classic Donn Beach, Trader Vic, and Steve Crane recipes from the 1930s through1950s.

Inevitably, tons of “Best Tiki Bars” lists have popped up online. Of the current “modern era” Tiki bars, these lists inevitably cite Smuggler’s Cove, Hale Pele, Latitude 29, Three Dots and a Dash, and Lost Lake, among others—all worthy of your drinking time. At the same time, a set of celebrity Tiki bartenders has become the face of the Tiki revival – people like Jeff Berry, Martin Cate, Blair Reynolds, and Paul McGee. You’ll find quotes from these fine folks all over the coverage of Tiki these days. They’ve all contributed significantly to Tiki’s new modern era, embracing the classics but not being bound by them either. A lot of attention is lavished on these revivalists, and deservedly so.

It must be said, however, that the Tiki revival isn’t the sole work of these modern giants. There are any number of completely focused, hardcore Tiki enthusiasts under lesser known thatched roofs across the globe. I’m not talking about the bars that do Tiki popups one night a week–although it’s great that they do, bringing the gospel of Tiki to their regular clientele. Nor do I mean the hardworking bartender who dabbles in tropical-style drinks in between cask aging their Old Fashioneds. And not even the person who happens to work full time at a dedicated Tiki bar. I’m talking about bartenders who–like Martin, Blair, Jeff and Paul–live and breathe Tiki, constantly innovating on a daily basis with new recipes and techniques to create a “Wow!” moment for an unsuspecting customer.

One such bartender is Jason Alexander of Tacoma Cabana, who consistently has some radical new concoction in the works–always a visual and sensory masterpiece, with creative garnish not to mention serious fire. Jason might toil in semi-obscurity in Tacoma, building his loyal base of local customers, except that he’s also a master of promoting his new creations. He gives them exotic names, photographs them well, and launches them to social media on a near daily basis. (Do yourself a favor and follow @tikicommando on Instagram.  Then plan your trip to Tacoma.) He’s also a vocal proponent for the rums he uses, promoting them alongside his Tiki cocktails. In this way, he’s built a large social media following of rum and Tiki lovers from all over the world – many of them hankering to go to Tacoma despite having zero idea where that might actually be.

While Jason’s star is rising in the world of Tiki influencers, the Puget Sound region is also blessed with another Tiki savant, Justin Wojslaw, who is blazing a similar trail via dedication to the Tiki craft, original recipes, and getting the word out online. Having sat at his bar and featured his cocktails on Instagram more times than I can count, I realized it was high time to introduce him and some of his recipes to a broader audience.

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The Diller Room, Seattle WA

Walking along First Avenue in downtown Seattle, just south of Pike Place market, you’d be hard pressed to spot anyplace you might expect to find a decent drink, much less a Tiki drink .Even when I point out the Diller Room and you poke your head inside, the Tiki dens of your Polynesian fantasies wouldn’t come to mind. Tucked in the street-level corner of the historic Diller Hotel, the space was once a speakeasy with an upstairs brothel (thanks to Seattle’s gold-rush history).What at first glance looks like a long, narrow, early 20th century saloon actually boasts one of the city’s best-stocked back bars, including a very solid whiskey and tequila selection. Above the back bar, a blue and orange neon Diller Hotel sign provides a unique backdrop for Instagram-destined photos. The legions of tourists who walk by looking for the fish-throwing place or the very first Starbucks location rarely have an inkling of the Tiki badassery that goes down at the Diller Room every Friday through Tuesday on Justin’s watch.

Instagram

I first became aware of Justin through his Instagram account, @raining_and_pouring, which features a steady stream of his original cocktails with the occasional photo of his latest Tiki mug or Tiki shirt acquisition. We quickly became friends after my first visit, after realizing we had similar sensibilities about Tiki recipes and rum.

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In person, Justin can appear intimidating at first. In his early 30s, he is chiseled from stony Eastern European stock, all strong lines and angles.  He’s heavily tattooed, both arms fully sleeved with his striking ink climbing onto his neck. He could easily be the front man for your favorite new rockabilly band, with his slicked back hair and colorful shirts. (In certain circles there’s a large crossover between the rockabilly and Tiki cultures, so no surprise there.) At first glance, he may not seem like the kind of guy you’d want to bring home to Mom. But once he introduces himself and takes your order, you instantly realize he’s the sweetest guy you could imagine, highly focused on his guests’ experience and genuinely seeming to enjoy his profession behind the bar.

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The Diller Room in no way looks like a Tiki venue and offers a rather traditional cocktail menu. However, Justin explained to me that the bartenders at Diller Room have the somewhat unusual freedom to do their own thing and follow their particular passions with the support of management– one reason the back bar is so well stocked. In Justin’s case, his all-consuming love of Tiki has brought the bar a far better than average rum collection – You won’t find rums like Clement Select Barrel, El Dorado 21 and a wide swath of vintage Plantation rums at most bars.  Nor do most bars have anything like the killer collection of Tiki vessels, normally kept out of sight. Justin’s influence peeks through in other ways: Look closely at the top shelf above the back bar and you’ll spy a set of  elaborate aqua, black, and gold Diller Room custom highball glasses, a collaboration between Justin and local Tiki-enthusiast artist Tony Canepa. Then take a look at the stone chalkboard with the drink specials. If Justin’s at the helm that day, it will feature one of his latest original recipes.

Diller Room Tiki glasses at the CocktailWonk home bar

Tuesday (Justin’s Friday) is the official Tiki day at the Diller Room. Go then, and you’ll find his custom Tiki menus out on the bar top. But really, any time he’s there can be Tiki time if you know to ask. He’ll reach under the counter and hand you the “secret” menu. Or better yet, just ask him to make you whatever he’s noodling on at the moment, which is how I roll. “What are you making me today, Justin?” I regularly cause double takes from other customers when a giant vessel topped with fire-hazard worthy flame arrives in front of me, a stark counterpoint to the beers and vodka tonics around me, followed by a round of “What’s that?” and “I didn’t see that on the menu!”

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Justin’s first inkling that he’d dedicate his lifestyle to the Tiki gods was a visit to the Huntington Beach location of Don the Beachcomber, in Southern California–also coincidentally the first authentic Tiki bar Mrs. Wonk and I visited as I was drawn into the fold.  Justin regularly experiments with crafting custom ingredients such as his own blue curacao, banana liqueur, and a barrel-aged Wray & Nephew overproof.

Diller Tiki Menu
Justin’s Tiki menu at the Diller Room

Despite dreaming up a new recipe on at least a weekly basis, you won’t find him drifting too far from the Tiki mainstream. Citing Donn Beach, Trader Vic, and Steve Crane as big influences, Justin likes to say that he wouldn’t come up with a cocktail that those three heavy-hitters wouldn’t serve in their restaurants. So no peppercorn-infused vodka and Unicum based Tiki drinks on his specials board. When starting a new drink, Justin usually begins with a name and uses that as the inspiration to improvise different flavor combinations. And trust me, his names are evocative: Surf Terror, Skull Island Swizzle, Pharaoh’s Curse, Swizzle Me Timbers, Tropical Thunder, Wai Wahine, East End Grog, Lucky Dragon, and End of Days, to name but a few.IMG_5030

Something Justin does exceedingly well is the crowd-favorite fire garnish. Anybody can fill half a lime shell will some 151 overproof rum and ignite it, resulting in a dim blue flame barely visible in anything other than a dark room. In Justin’s capable hands, though, no rum is harmed, and the flame from his firepots demands attention even in the brightest room. Before you know it, he’s plunged his hand into the flame (momentarily), and as he raises his hand slowly, he summons the goddess Pele to unleash streams of fire leaping several feet up into the air.

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Some may proclaim the show as mere spectacle, but if the drink is solid to begin with, there’s nothing wrong with topping it off with some fireworks. In this regard, he treads the same path as mentor Jason Alexander, crafting top notch cocktails and a bit of fiery fun on the side. It’s no surprise that Justin and Jason are friends. Their Tiki havens are only about an hour apart and the two regularly trade recipes and promote each other’s work. Also, like Jason, Justin was recently among the three finalists in the Tiki Kon Iron Tikitender competition, Jason in 2014 and Justin in 2015.

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Justin generously offered to share some of this recipes with me—and now for you. To make it even more official, I visited him at the Diller Room to try them out first and snapped the photos you see here. Both follow the classic Tiki pattern and don’t have hyper-exotic ingredients that are challenging to find.  Both are Justin’s spins on classics, reducing the citrus a bit and adjusting the ratios of other ingredients. Welcome to Tiki—we hope you stay a while.

Krakatoa Punch (Justin Wojslaw, The Diller Room, Seattle)

  • 1.0 oz Lime juice
  • 0.5 oz Orange juice
  • 0.5 oz Grapefruit juice
  • 0.5 oz Falernum
  • 0.5 oz Apricot liqueur
  • 0.75 oz Kahlua
  • 2 dashes Angostura bitters
  • 1.5oz Lemonhart 151 or Hamilton 151

Shake with ice, strain into vessel, fill with crushed ice.

Cuba Kula (Justin Wojslaw, The Diller Room, Seattle)

  • 1.0 oz Lime juice
  • 0.5 oz Orange juice
  • 0.5 oz Honey Mix (1:1 honey, water)
  • 0.5 oz Falernum
  • 2 dash Angostura bitters
  • 6 drops Absinthe (A Donn Beach signature)
  • 1.0 oz Dark Jamaican Rum (e.g. Coruba, Hamilton Jamaican Dark, etc)
  • 1.0 oz Demerara Rum (e.g. El Dorado 5, Lemon Hart 80, etc)
  • 0.5 oz Overproof Puerto Rican Rum

Shake with crushed ice.

 

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